Last week was historic for the International Criminal Court. It marked the pre-trial of the case against Laurent Gbagbo, the first former head of state to ever face charges in the ICC. I arrived on Tuesday simply hoping to see the inside of the building, but instead spent the afternoon watching demonstrators clash with Dutch police, and each other.
I was familiar with the Gbagbo case before I arrived and it was a simply a coincidence that my visit coincided with the first day of his pre-trial, which he did not attend. I knew that Gbagbo was installed as President of Cote d’Ivoire in 2000 and was in power during the 2002 civil war that split the country into politically contentious north and south regions. He served for a decade, based mostly on his continual stalling of his second election, and when Alassane Outtara was declared the winner of the 2010 elections Gbagbo refused to step down. He and his supporters argued that Outtara rigged the election (which is really hard to do unless the candidate is the incumbent) and Gbagbo swore himself into office again, despite that international observers called the voting more-or-less fair and that Gbagbo had already serve the equivalent of the constitutional limit of two five-year terms. Cote d’Ivoire became an even more volatile place in November 2010 when both Gbagbo and Outtara began to use violence to ensure their respective presidencies. The post-election conflict received the most media attention when a mass grave was discovered containing the bodies of known Outtara supporters.
According to the Case Information Sheet on “Situation in the Cote d’Ivoire: The Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo” provided to me at the ICC’s front desk, pro-Gbagbo forces purportedly used widespread and systematic attacks against specific ethnic or religious communities that were supporting Outtara. The ICC is alleging that murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts were committed over an extended time period and over large geographic areas (I’m using the ICC’s wording). Gbagbo is being called an indirect co-perpetrator for four counts of crimes against humanity. Although Cote d’Ivoire is not party to the Rome State that founded the ICC, it accepted its jurisdiction in April 2003, which was ironically under Gbagbo’s regime. Outtara reconfirmed the country’s acceptance of this jurisdiction and at the end of last year the former President was arrested in the capital of Abidjan and transferred to The Hague. He has been fit to stand trial, and after being found indigent, the Court has borne the cost of his Defense.
Based on the violence that has occurred in Cote d’Ivoire over the last decade and the 2010 election strife, I was not totally surprised to see a rally outside the ICC on Tuesday. I became confused though when I approached the demonstration to see participants wearing t-shirts saying “Free Gbagbo” and holding banners calling Gbagbo a political prisoner. I initially assumed the 200+ demonstrators were there to see justice served against a tyrant, but on the contrary, they were loyal to Gbagbo and had come to support him.
I spent an hour or so talking with various protesters. Although a good number lived in the Netherlands, most seemed to have come from all over Western Europe, telling me they spent the night on buses from London, Paris, Berlin, and Milan to attend and would turn around and get back on the bus that same afternoon. I heard a litany of reasons for their presence there, with the most simple being that Gbagbo was a family friend or that he was born in the same community as the protester. Some said they came out because they felt he would be a better ruler than Outtara, while others felt he had been a scapegoat for an out-of-control military that acted of its own accord. Many voiced anger that Gbagbo’s inner circle have all been imprisoned under Outtara, including the former First Lady Simone Hehivet Gbagbo, his son, Michel Gbagbo, and former Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan. Many chanted about one-sided justice, in which both sides had committed violence yet only Gbagbo was arrested. I was handed a leaflet calling the 2010 election a France-backed coup, a form of neocolonialism. A different leaflet I received showed graphic photos of dead bodies from a massacre that allegedly occurred on July 20, 2012, captions stating that Ouattara used the military to burn opponents alive and that he had established concentration camps. Another Ivorian-French man at the rally gave me an information sheet that had nothing to do with the 2010 election violence at all, but rather was demanding an answer as to who was responsible for the November 2004 bombing of a French military camp in Bouaké, which killed 9 French soldiers, one American civilian, and injured 38 others. The pro-Gbagbo demonstration simply gave him an audience and platform he needed to get his message across.
Here is some footage I took of the rally in its early hours when it was at its calmest: