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Ivory Coast confronts brutal past with trial of ‘Iron Lady’ Simone Gbagbo

Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady of Ivory Coast, at her trial in the capital Abidjan on May 9, 2016

The trial of Simone Gbagbo, the former first lady of Ivory Coast, on charges of crimes against humanity opened Tuesday in the Ivorian city of Abidjan as the West African nation faces a pivotal moment in confronting its violent past.

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The infamous “Iron Lady” of Ivory Coast, once considered the most powerful woman in her cocoa-rich West African nation, is facing charges in yet another high-profile trial.

A trial against Gbagbo for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes opened Tuesday in the country’s highest criminal court, the Cour d’Assises. The accusations stem from a brutal period of post-electoral violence following the 2010 presidential poll, which saw more than 3,000 people killed in a span of just five months.

It’s not the first time the 66-year-old former Ivorian first lady has had a brush with justice.

In March 2015, an Ivorian court sentenced Gbagbo to 20 years in prison in connection with the post-election violence between December 16, 2010 and April 12, 2011. The charges included undermining state security, disturbing public order and organising armed gangs in the aftermath of the presidential election, which her husband, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede.

She also faces crimes against humanity charges at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for “exercising joint control” over crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces.

Since she was captured on April 11, 2011, by forces loyal to current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo has faced numerous charges related to the country’s violent post-electoral period, accusations she has repeatedly denied.

But the woman who was once called “the Hillary Clinton of the tropics” found herself in the crosshairs of international justice even while she was Ivory Coast’s first lady. Back in 2009, she was questioned by French judges over the disappearance of French-Canadian journalist André Keiffer while he was on a reporting mission in Ivory Coast.

At that time few expected Gbagbo to face justice, with critics noting that the Gbagbos were too powerful to account for how they ran their county.

But then came a dramatic fall from grace. On April 11, 2011, Gbagbo and her husband shot into the international spotlight in their nightclothes when forces backing Ouattara stormed the presidential palace, capturing the couple and placing them under arrest.

The images of a disheveled first lady looking visibly shaken as pro-Ouattara fighters gathered around her posing for news photographers were disconcerting, both for supporters and opponents of the Ivorian power duo.

‘He will be king and I will be queen’

Gbagbo’s story chronicles the extraordinary rise and fall of a woman who worked her way from being a Marxist union leader to one of Africa’s most powerful first ladies and then to a name on court charge sheets.

Born in 1949 to a policeman father, Gbagbo was politically committed from a very early age. As a Marxist trade union leader, she was a harsh critic of Ivory Coast’s founding father, former president Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Her public criticism of the staunchly anti-communist Houphouet-Boigny – also known as “Le Vieux” (The Old One) – saw her imprisoned several times between 1970 and 1990.

It was during the 1980s teachers’ strike movement that she met Laurent Gbagbo, who went on to form the leftist Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party. The couple married on January 19, 1989, both for the second time, launching a partnership marked by fierce ambition from the very start.

“As soon as she met him, she told herself: 'He will be king and I will be his queen,'" a source close to the couple told the French daily Libération.

Team Gbagbo was a formidable duo. It was, according to French weekly Jeune Afrique, "a unique case in Africa. There was, in Ivory Coast from 2000 to 2011, not one leader, but two”. Their individual personalities complemented each other. "He is a night owl, she gets up at the first light of dawn. He loves digressions, smoothing rough edges; he is careful about his image and needs to be liked. She is blunt, to the point, and never embarrassed.”

But although they worked well together, Gbagbo repeatedly proclaimed her independence, dismissing any implication that she was a first lady who lived in the shadow of her powerful husband. During their years in power she was more of a political ally than a wife to the president, even maintaining separate bedrooms, according to local press reports.

"I owe my current position to my own trajectory, not my husband’s position,” she declared while her husband was the leader of the West African economic powerhouse.

But when it came to charisma, “Simone” – or “Maman” as her supporters called her – had none of her husband’s charm, with observers describing her as “confident yet brittle”. In his 2014 book on African first ladies, “Reines d’Afrique” (African Queens), French journalist Vincent Hugeux was being deliberately provocative when he described Gbagbo as “too intelligent for a woman".

When it came to policy decisions, the Ivorian first lady invariably had her say. During the 2002-2007 political conflict known as the First Ivorian Civil War, Gbagbo defended her husband, denouncing the "sedition" of mutinying troops from the mostly Muslim north and being consistently hostile to successive peace agreements.

Ivorian government takes on the ICC

Most damaging have been the persistent allegations that Gbagbo was linked to "death squads" targeting supporters of Ouattara, whom she has always hated. Her alleged links to these squads are at the heart of some of the most serious charges she faces in the current trial under way in the Ivorian commercial hub of Abidjan.

The prosecution alleges that, during the period of post-electoral bloodletting, Gbagbo participated in a “crisis committee” comprised of leaders from her husband’s political party and key government ministers who planned and orchestrated abuses against Ouattara supporters to keep her husband in power at all costs.

If convicted, she faces life in prison.

She faces similar charges at the ICC, leading to an arrest warrant being issued in 2012.

But the ICC’s Simone Gbagbo file lists her as “Not in the custody of the Court” since the Ivorian government has refused to transfer her to The Hague.

Her husband, however, is in custody at the ICC, where his trial on crimes against humanity charges opened on January 28.

The Ivorian government maintains that it will not transfer Gbagbo to the ICC since she faces the same charges in the national courts. Amid rising criticism of the ICC across the continent, Ouattara declared in April 2015 that all future trials related to the post-election crisis would take place in Ivorian courts.

But ICC judges have rejected the government’s request for Ivorian courts to retain jurisdiction over Gbagbo’s case, arguing that the investigation into her role in human rights abuses had not made sufficient progress at the time. Their decision means the Ivory Coast remains obligated to surrender Gbagbo to The Hague.

The twists and turns in the Simone Gbagbo case has led New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to call on the Ivorian government to “maintain support for impartial and independent investigations into crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, and ensure that prosecutors and investigating judges are given the time and resources they need to finish their investigations. Courts should ensure that the rights of victims to participate in the proceedings are respected”.

The HRW statement, issued shortly after three Ivorian rights groups pulled out as plaintiffs in the latest trial, highlights the questions surrounding the Ouattara administration’s commitment to prosecuting both sides of the conflict.

Critics have accused Ouattara of only prosecuting crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces. Shortly after his October 2015 reelection, the Ivorian president maintained that, “Justice must be equal for all. We need to avoid impunity.”

But so far there has been little evidence of the government’s commitment to investigate atrocities committed by pro-Ouattara forces and to start legal proceedings.

This perceived failure to seek and deliver justice has potentially serious implications in a country that was effectively split between the mainly Christian south and the mainly Muslim north for many years and is still trying to maintain unity and stability.

As lawyers in the Simone Gbagbo case begin proceedings, HRW has noted that the trial could be a "pivotal moment" for justice in Ivory Coast.

"However, for the trial to be meaningful to victims, it must be credible, fair, and followed by other trials that target high-level rights abusers from both sides of the 2010-2011 post-election crisis," the group warned.

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