What happens now to Laurent Gbagbo?
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When he was arrested Monday, a chapter closed in former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo’s eventful life. But now a new one opens, and it’s not clear if it will entail justice at home or abroad, or a life in exile.
Not long after former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested Monday, the question of his legal fate was being debated in Ivorian and international circles.
Gbagbo was seized by forces loyal to Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara at his residence in the country's main city of Abidjan following a deadly four-month post-election standoff sparked by Gbagbo’s refusal to concede the November 2010 election.
Hours after Gbagbo’s capture, Ouattara promised to take legal action against the former president and his entourage in a televised address. "I’ve asked the Justice Minister to open legal proceedings against Laurent Gbagbo, his wife and his staff", said Ouattara.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) had already warned the former president and his supporters that their crimes against the Ivorian people and threats against UN peacekeepers would not go unpunished.
So, will Gbagbo face justice at home or abroad? "That's where the problems start", said Philippe Perdrix, deputy editor of the French weekly Jeune Afrique.
Pandora’s box: The International Criminal Court option
Ivory Coast has been under the ICC’s radar since 2005, when The Hague started a preliminary investigation into war crimes in the West African nation. On April 6, ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said the court would open an investigation into "widespread or systematic massacres committed” in Ivory Coast.
But the ICC is currently busy with investigations and cases on Libya, Kenya, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – to name just a few countries – as well as preliminary investigations in a host of other nations.
What’s more, the ICC can not replace national courts. The Hague can only try former presidents "if the ICC judges are convinced that the Ivorian judicial system is unable to judge Laurent Gbagbo and his family", said lawyer William Bourbon.
But if that happens, the stakes are equally dangerous for Ouattara’s supporters.
"An international investigation would open a Pandora's box", said Perdrix.
"Supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara have committed numerous atrocities in the country. We know that Ouattara supporters are equally guilty of atrocities", said Perdrix, referring to mass killings in the western town of Duekoue, a Gbagbo stronghold.
The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that at least 536 people were killed in Duekoue during a military advance by troops loyal to Ouattara from their northern bases to the economic capital of Abidjan.
A fraught national option
The option of a trial in Ivory Coast is fraught with risks in a country plagued by a hardline nationalist discourse by the former president and his allies.
But according to FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Gauthier Rybinski, it’s a risk worth taking.
"Ivory Coast must purge itself of its crimes before the rebuilding process begins. Risking everything to suppress justice would be even harder for the country", said Rybinski.
"This trial should symbolise the foundation of the rule-of-law, it must be a step toward the national reconciliation being advocated by Ouattara”.
But an Ivorian court would also provide an ideal forum for Gbagbo to rally his hardline supporters and rouse his militias, such as the Young Patriots.
For Gbagbo’s substantial support base – he won 45.9% of the November 2010 vote, according to the UN – a national trial could represent a means for Ouattara to decisively crush his longtime political rival. "There is a real risk of settling scores”, warns Perdrix.
Another issue would be the scope of the trial. Would it cover the period of his entire presidency, starting with his controversial 2000 ascension to power, including the kidnapping and disappearances of his opponents as well as high-profile cases such as the 2004 disappearance of French journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer? Or would it solely include the violence following the November 2010 election?
Exile, a possible solution?
There’s always the exile option, with guaranteed diplomatic immunity and freedom from retaliation by his successor. In the four months between his election defeat and his arrest, a number of countries have offered Gbagbo exile, including Angola, Nigeria and the United States.
The US was ready to accept Gbagbo, and the former history professor was even offered a lectureship position at Boston University, said Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was the African Union's envoy to negotiate an end to the Ivorian crisis.
“America had given me that offer”, Odinga told reporters Tuesday during a visit to the US. “All that is lost now”.
There are a number of African nations that would still be willing to take him in, including Angola, South Africa and Malawi. But according to Rybinski, that’s not about to happen. “Ouattara's men arrested him, kept alive for a purpose", said Rybinski. “He will stay there, a prisoner, until justice takes its course”.