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Simone Gbagbo on trial

Katrin Matthaei / mc January 6, 2015

Ivory Coast's ex-first lady, Simone Gbagbo, is on trial in her home country. With 82 other defendants, she faces charges of fomenting post-election violence in 2010. Critics say the trial is politically motivated.

Elfenbeinküste Simone Gbagbo Prozess
Image: Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

This trial is not just about Ivory Coast's former first lady Simone Gbagbo. It is also about the deep rifts that have divided the country since the deadly post-election violence of 2010 and 2011.

This is the first time a high-ranking member of the ruling elite has been summoned to appear before court in connection with the violence.

The 65-year-old "Iron Lady" - as her supporters call her - stands trial along with 82 other defendants. She is accused of undermining state security during the months of violent unrest that followed the presidential elections in 2010.

The violence was triggered by the then President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to recognize that the election had been won by his opponent Alassane Ouattara, Ivory Coast's current president.

Fighting broke out between supporters of the opposing camps and more than 3,000 people were killed. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Simone Gbagbo, accusing her of crimes against humanity. But Ivory Coast is availing itself of the opportunity to try her at home. The official reason is a desire not to jeopardize the fragile process of national reconciliation.

Krise in der Elfenbeinküste
Post election violence claimed at least 3,000 lives in Ivory Coast in 2010/11Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Simone Gbagbo is the proverbial formidable wife at the side of an ambitious husband. The "Iron Lady" has been politically active all her life. There are persistent rumors that she is the one who takes the decisions, not her husband. While in exile, the couple founded the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) in 1982. Simone Gbagbo was arrested several times and apparently tortured as well. She entered parliament in 1995; five years later her husband and the FPI came to power.

Controversial charismatic figure

As first lady, she had the opportunity to acquire power and influence and she made use of it. She became president of the FPI parliamentary group and a vice president of the FPI.

A charismatic speaker, she knew how to hold an audience in the palm of her hand. "Shame on Ban Ki-moon, shame on Sarkozy, shame on Obama and one can also say, shame on Alassane Outtara," she once told a crowd to rapturous applause.

She didn't only reach out for power, she also allegedly misused it. Simone Gbagbo is said to have made the security forces serve her own political ends. Her name was repeatedly mentioned in connection with death squads that targeted supporters of Alassane Outtara. During the violent unrest in 2010 she allegedly sent in Ivorian troops and called on the youth wing of the party to erect street barricades to stop UN blue helmet peacekeepers from reaching the fighting. The UN recognized Ouattara as the winner of the poll.

Elfenbeinküste - Simone Gbagbo
The ICC accuses Simone Gbagbo of running death squads on behalf of her husband's regimeImage: Getty Images

The trial of Simone Gbagbo and the other defendants is dividing the nation and its political parties. The FPI says the trial is politically motivated. "After the crisis, there were arrests on both sides. Why are Gbagbo's supporters being put on trial and why right now?" said Michel N'Guessan Amani, member of the FPI's executive, in an interview with DW. In principle it is a good thing that the accused are being tried. But at issue here are the reasons why they have been put on trial, he said. "This is something we cannot accept. That is why we reject the whole trial."

Rights groups' reservations

Human rights organizations say that only two out of a total of 150 accused are supporters of President Ouattara even though his camp was also responsible for the escalation in the violence. "I think it would be better if all the accused were to be set free," said Raymond Koffi, an Abidjan resident. "They are political prisoners, they have to be released so that peace can return," he added.

But many other Ivorians are opposed to an amnesty. "They have to face trial if there is to be reconciliation," said Margueritte Konan, also from Abidjan. "Those who have done wrong should pay, that's also a part of reconciliation," said the woman in her mid-30s.

The spokesperson for the governing party Rally of the Republicans, Joel N'Guessan said he was glad that the trial was underway. "We want transparency and justice for the victims and their families, who have been hurt to a degree that should never have happened."

Elfenbeinküste Kommunalwahlen Ouattara
Opposition politicians wonder why so few of Alassane Ouattara's supporters are on trial.Image: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

The defendants are finally getting a trial after three years in custody, human rights activists note. "We are relieved, pre-trial detention shouldn't go on forever," said Abrahma Denis Yoroubat from the rights group APDH.

Many hope that the trial will give impetus to the reconciliation process in the country. But investigations into the violence proceed very slowly. A recent report by the Reconciliation Commission was described as inadequate by the International League of Human Rights. Even the Commission's president Konnan Bany found the report disappointing.

Laurent Gbagbo wants to run for high office again. He has already dispatched the preliminary paperwork from the prison attached to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. where he, too, faces charges of crimes against humanity in connection with the unrest in 2010/11. The Ivorian authorities have rejected his candidacy.