Free from War Crimes: The Trial of Simone Gbagbo

The Ivory Coast proclaimed Simone Gbagbo, the wife of former President Laurent Gbagbo, not guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Prosecutors requested a life sentence, claiming she was part of one of her husband’s committees that organized abuses against supporters of Mr. Gbagbo’s opponent during the 2010 election. Her acquittal sparked rage amongst human rights groups who claimed that the trial presented weak evidence and was poorly investigated. The acquittal of Mrs. Gbagbo led many to believe that the Ivory Coast court did not thoroughly examine Mrs. Gbagbo’s case and to question the legitimacy of the Ivory Coast judicial system.  

Violence erupted as a result of the November 2010 election between the incumbent Gbagbo and his opponent and current president, Alassanne Ouattara. The people of the Ivory Coast viewed Ouattara as the new and legitimate leader of the country, but Gbagbo refused to relinquish his power. War broke out in December and lasted until May 2011, killing over 3,000 people killed in the process. Both Gbagbo and her husband were arrested on April 11th, 2011 and were placed under house arrest in different parts of the Ivory Coast while they awaited their trial. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against the couple, but only Mr. Gbagbo will have his trial in The Hague. Under Ouattara’s administration, no more Ivoirians will be sent to The Hague in part to reassure his partisans, many of which are guilty of mass murder, in an attempt to convince them that they will not be subjected to ICC hearings and to demonstrate to the world that the Ivory Coast can handle its own war criminals.

The trial of Gbagbo’s wife took place under the Ivory Coast’s highest court, with Judge Kouadio Bouatchi overseeing the trial.  Although the judges unanimously agreed that Mrs. Gbagbo was innocent of the accused crimes, the trial didn’t start off in her advantage. With pressure coming from the ICC to indict her and the country looking for confirmation that the Gbagbo’s were the villains during the post-election conflict, many assumed that Mrs. Gbagbo was guilty of the accused crimes. Resulting from pressures from outside groups to indict her, Mrs. Gbagbo’s first two attorneys withdrew from her case, denouncing the trial as politically motivated because they were unable to call high-profile witnesses to the stand who were essential to Gbagbo’s defense. Her new court-appointed lawyer, Mathurin Diarbou, won her the case, stating, “We are happy. Since the start of the trial we proclaimed her innocence. The prosecution’s case against her was empty.” She was cleared of her charges, according to Diarbou, because of the dearth of evidence the prosecutors provided in support of her guilt.

The Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), created by Laurent Gbagbo, expressed their delight regarding the results of the trial. Pascal Affi N’Guessan, leader of the FPI, told reporters that the verdict represents “a willingness to move towards reconciliation” between the Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters. However, human rights groups are livid about the decision. Param-Prett Singh, Associate Directors of Human Rights Watch, stated that, “the poor quality of the investigation and weak evidence presented in her trail underscore the importance of the ICC’s outstanding case against her for similar crimes, not least as an opportunity for victims of her alleged crimes to obtain justice,” demonstrating her disapproval of how the Ivory Coast handled the case. The report issued by Human Rights Watch stated that Gbagbo was isolated from former officials in order to separate her from her husband’s administration and refused to allow victims of the conflict to testify against her in court. Under Ivorian law, victims are entitled to participate in hearings, but were denied their right to do so in Gbagbo’s case. President Outtarra promised to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, regardless of their political affiliation. Human Rights Watch, however, believes that the president already broke his promises in the case of Mrs. Gbagbo.

Although Mrs. Gbagbo has been sentenced to 20-years in prison for ‘offense against the state’, many believe that the she’s still guilty of crimes against humanity and should be sentenced to life in prison. The public prosecutor has 60 days to appeal to the ruling and has released a statement saying how he plans to reveal he decision soon. For now, human rights groups are hoping that her case will once again be brought to international courts in order to convict Gbagbo of her crimes. As Issiaka Diaby, the President of the Association for Victims of the Ivory Coast Conflict, states, “I’m disappointed and sad for the victims of today. Only international justice can fight against impunity, it seems. We can no longer trust Ivorian justice.”

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