THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo was taken into custody by the International Criminal Court Wednesday to face charges of murder, rape and other crimes allegedly committed by his supporters as he clung to power after last year's elections.
Gbagbo, 66, is the first former head of state arrested by the court since it was established in 2002. Prosecutors also have charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with genocide, but he has refused to surrender to the court. Libya's former leader, the late Moammar Gadhafi, was killed before he could be put on trial in The Hague on crimes against humanity charges.
"Mr. Gbagbo is brought to account for his individual responsibility in the attacks against civilians committed by forces acting on his behalf," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a statement.
Prosecutors say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede defeat following the Nov. 28 presidential election. President Alassane Ouattara only took power in April with the help of French and U.N. forces.
Gbagbo was expected to spend Wednesday settling in his new cell in the court's seaside detention unit. He is scheduled to appear before judges at a hearing Monday afternoon to confirm his identity and that he understands his rights as a suspect and the charges against him.
His arrest and transfer to the court in The Hague on an overnight flight sparked elation and anger in Ivory Coast's largest city of Abidjan, which is still divided into neighborhoods supporting Gbagbo or Ouattara.
In the pro-Ouattara neighborhood Doakoure, Sarah Dosso said she sang and danced when she heard the news of Gbagbo's transfer.
"It's overwhelming. I'm really happy," the 25-year-old said outside her home, which faces a mass grave where her father and brother are buried.
Adama Diomande, a local leader of Ouattara's political party, says there are 42 bodies in the mass grave and a total of 91 people were killed in the neighborhood in post-election fighting. He has most of the victims' names, with photocopies of their ID cards, in a thick file labeled "deceased."
Moreno-Ocampo stressed that both sides of the political divide in Ivory Coast committed crimes in the post-election chaos and that his investigation was continuing.
That statement appeared aimed at countering fears that Gbagbo's arrest could further stoke tension in Ivory Coast, also known by its French name Cote d'Ivoire, because it gives the appearance of victor's justice. Grave abuses also were committed by forces loyal to Ouattara, who enlisted the help of a former rebel group to force Gbagbo from office, human rights groups say.
In a clear indication of the lingering resentment dividing the West African nation, taxi driver Ble Hypolite called Gbagbo's transfer "illegal."
"It's not fair. Both parties were responsible. Since 2002 civilians have been killed, especially in the west," he said. "This is bad for reconciliation."
Reed Brody, of Human Rights Watch, said Gbagbo's indictment was only half the story as victims of crimes by forces loyal to Ouattara have so far gone unpunished.
"This created the perception of victor's justice," he said in Brussels. "And 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."
Gbagbo is the sixth suspect taken into custody by the court, which has launched seven investigations, all of them in Africa. A further 11 suspects remain at large and the court has no police force to arrest them.
According to court papers, Gbagbo is charged as an "indirect perpetrator" in a carefully orchestrated campaign of violence against civilians perceived as supporters of Ouattara.
"This is a great day for Laurent Gbagbo's victims, for the people of Cote d'Ivoire, for international justice," said Brody. "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."
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented how forces loyal to Ouattara torched villages that voted for Gbagbo, and executed those that could not run away. The elderly and the disabled were killed by rolling them inside mattresses and then setting them on fire.
Gbagbo will share a cell block with former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is waiting for a verdict in his trial at an ad hoc tribunal on charges of orchestrating atrocities in Sierra Leone.
Gbagbo, a history professor, came to power in a flawed election in 2000. He failed to hold elections when his first five-year term expired in 2005, and rescheduled the vote a half-dozen times before it finally went ahead in November 2010.
Killings began as soon as the United Nations declared Ouattara the winner, and for the next four months morgues overflowed as the military under Gbagbo's control executed opponents, gunned down protesters and shelled neighborhoods.
The United Nations helped by French forces eventually launched air strikes that cleared a path for Ouattara's soldiers to enter the capital, where they seized Gbagbo inside his bunker on April 11.
He was held under house arrest in the country's north until he was flown out of the country Tuesday night – likely the first of several suspects.
"Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said. "Mr. Gbagbo is the first to be brought to account, there is more to come."
Laura Burke reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.