THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Ivory Coast's ex-president appeared at the International Criminal Court on Monday, the first former head of state to face judges at the world's first permanent war crimes court. Laurent Gbagbo vowed to fight the charges against him.
Gbagbo, 66, was calm and smiled at supporters in the public gallery as the 25-minute hearing opened. He told judges he did not need them to read the charges.
Gbagbo was extradited to the Netherlands last week to face accusations his supporters committed murder and rape as he rejected an election result and tried to cling to power.
Ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian leader Charles Taylor were also sent to The Hague for trial, but both faced temporary, ad hoc tribunals – Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Gbagbo is the first to be tried at the ICC, which started work in 2002. Together, the cases are ushering in a new era in which heads of state no longer enjoy impunity.
"In the past, if you were a head of state you could commit massive atrocities and nothing would happen," Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said. "This era is gone."
Prosecutors say about 3,000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede. President Alassane Ouattara took power in April with the help of French and U.N. forces.
The former president, speaking in French, said he wanted to see the evidence against him.
"I will challenge that evidence and then you hand down your judgment," he told the three-judge panel.
Gbagbo also complained about his arrest by opposition forces backed by French troops in April, saying he saw his son beaten and his interior minister killed in the fighting.
"I was the president of the republic and the residence of the president of the republic was shelled," he said.
He also complained about his transfer to The Hague last week from northern Ivory Coast where he was under house arrest.
"We were deceived," he said, adding the official in charge of his transfer "did not have the courage to tell me I was going to The Hague."
Monday's brief hearing was to confirm Gbagbo's identity and ensure that he understood his rights and the charges. According to court papers, Gbagbo is charged as an "indirect perpetrator" in a carefully orchestrated campaign of violence against supporters of Ouattara.
Presiding judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi of Argentina scheduled a hearing for June 18 where prosecutors will present a summary of their evidence and judges will decide whether it is strong enough to merit bringing Gbagbo's case to trial.
Before that, judges will schedule interim status conferences to discuss progress in the case. Gbagbo could challenge his detention at such a conference and seek to be released pending further hearings.
Even before Gbagbo was led into the courtroom, his lawyers called his arrest and transfer to the court French "neocolonialism."
"It's a neocolonialist trial," Gbagbo's adviser Toussaint Alain told reporters in The Hague. "The (ICC) has become an instrument of France ... to empower friends and punish the ones who don't follow along."
Gbagbo's lawyer Habiba Toure also challenged the legitimacy of the Gbagbo's detention last week on an ICC warrant while he was under house arrest.
"In principal, an arrest warrant is delivered to a free individual or a person on the run, which was not the case for Mr. Gbagbo because he was already in the hands of Ivory Coast officials," Toure said.
A handful of supporters outside court also condemned France's role in his ouster.
"This is a masquerade by French President Nicolas Sarkozy," said Abel Naki, who traveled from Paris to be at the court. "Sarkozy orchestrated this coup d'etat."
The protesters' anger underscored lingering tensions between Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters in Ivory Coast.
Moreno-Ocampo, stressed last week that both sides of the political divide in Ivory Coast committed crimes in the postelection chaos and that his investigation was continuing.
Human rights groups say grave abuses also were committed by forces loyal to Ouattara, who enlisted the help of a former rebel group to force Gbagbo from office.
Gbagbo is the sixth suspect taken into custody by the court, which has launched seven investigations, all of them in Africa. A further 12 suspects remain at large and the court has no police force to arrest them.