ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST — Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president who led his country to the brink of civil war, shuffled off a charter plane and into the custody of The International Criminal Court at The Hague early Wednesday morning in a groundbreaking extradition that could spell an end to a decade of bloodshed and rebellion in Ivory Coast.
To howls of protest by Gbagbo supporters, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, promised that the strongman’s arrest was “just the beginning” and that more suspects would stand trial for crimes committed during inter-ethnic violence that flared up following Ivory Coast’s 2010 presidential election.
Diplomats, human rights groups, and analysts say Mr. Moreno-Ocampo’s ability to honor that commitment, and the willingness of the Ivorian authorities to try people on both sides of the political divide, are essential if the West Africa nation is to put its troubles behind it.
Former President Gbagbo, who is the first former head of state to be taken into custody by the ICC, will share a cell block with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who faced an ad hoc tribunal earlier this year for orchestrating atrocities in Sierra Leone.
Gbagbo faces four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in an orgy of violence following last year’s presidential election, which he refused to concede despite being convincingly beaten in a vote deemed by the African Union and other observer missions to be free and fair.
Holed up in his bunker in the capital, Abidjan, Gbagbo then allegedly directed a campaign in which security forces and a vicious youth militia known as the Young Patriots terrorized the West Africa immigrants providing much of rival Alassane Ouattara’s support base. Massacres became common and pro-Ouattara rebels responded in kind.
“Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes: Mr. Gbagbo is first to be brought to account, there is more to come,” Ocampo said.
Gbagbo was served his arrest warrant Tuesday — which he refused to sign — and whisked out of the country overnight before his supporters could take to the streets in protest. But the speed of the extradition left many smarting days before the country goes to the polls to elect a new parliament and condemnation was quick to follow.
“What we are seeing today is the triumph of corruption, dirty dealing, and shady connections to the detriment of the state,” Justin Kone Katina, Gbagbo’s spokesman, said from exile in Ghana. He called Moreno-Ocampo a “scheming puppet … who allows himself to be manipulated by interests that are far removed from any sense of justice.”
Three pro-Gbagbo parties promptly announced they were pulling out of the Dec. 11 vote, claiming Gbagbo’s extradition to The Hague would undermine national reconciliation. Gbgabo’s ownIvorian Popular Front (FPI) party has already promised to boycott the election, which it says will be skewed by insecurity.
With tensions simmering, diplomats, human rights groups and analysts say it’s crucial that commanders loyal to Ouattara face trial too. “If the cycle of violence in Cote d’Ivoire is to stop there has to be justice that is even-handed and justice for the victims on both sides,” says Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.
That said, the importance of Gbagbo’s extradition shouldn’t be ignored, Brady says.
“This is a great day for Laurent Gbagbo’s victims, for the people of Cote d’Ivoire, for international justice,” Brady says. “I mean, just a few months ago president Gbagbo’s forces were holding the country hostage, killing, raping, and today he is facing justice. This is a very important message to all the leaders in the world that if they use the atrocities and crime to stay in power that they too could face justice.”