Former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo seemed intent on playing the global statesman rather than the fugitive when he appeared at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on Monday.
The ICC has tried and failed to bring the might of international law down on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. So it was Gbagbo who faced the dishonor of becoming the first former head of state to stand trial at the world’s premier war crimes court.
The 66-year-old was transferred to the Netherlands last week to face four charges of crimes against humanity. His supporters are alleged to have committed murder and rape as he rejected an election result and tried to cling to his -decade-long rule.
Prosecutors say about 3,000 people died in four months of violence perpetrated by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede. Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara took power in April, with the help of French and UN forces, after a disheveled Gbagbo was plucked from his bunker.
Looking healthier and more rested on Monday, Gbagbo smiled at supporters in the public gallery as the 25-minute hearing opened.
“Good afternoon madame president, thank you for letting me speak,” he said, “I am Laurent Gbagbo.”
He told the three-judge panel he did not need them to read the charges. Gbagbo said he wanted to see the evidence against him.
“I will challenge that evidence and then you hand down your judgment,” Gbagbo said.
He blamed France, the former colonial power in Ivory Coast, for his arrest by pro-Ouattara forces.
“I was arrested under French bombs,” Gbagbo said.
He said he saw his son beaten and his interior minister killed in the fighting. He also complained about his transfer last week from northern Ivory Coast.
“We were deceived,” he said, adding that the official in charge of his transfer “did not have the courage to tell me I was going to The Hague” until after he was at the airport.
The hearing was to confirm Gbagbo’s identity and ensure he understood his rights and the charges.
According to court papers, he is charged as an “indirect perpetrator” in an orchestrated campaign of violence against Ouattara supporters. The presiding judge, Silvia -Fernandez de Gurmendi, scheduled a hearing for June 18 when prosecutors will present a summary of evidence and judges will decide whether it is strong enough to merit bringing Gbagbo’s case to trial.
Before that, judges will schedule conferences to discuss progress in the case, during which Gbagbo can challenge his detention. His lawyers have condemned his arrest and transfer.
“It’s a neo-colonialist trial,” adviser Toussaint Alain told reporters. “The [ICC] has become an instrument of France ... to empower friends and punish the ones who don’t follow along.”