Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo pleads not guilty to atrocities

Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo unleashed a wave of deadly violence targeting political opponents in a doomed attempt to cling to power after losing a 2010 election runoff, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor said Thursday as the court's landmark first trial of a former head of state got underway.

“Nothing would be allowed to defeat Mr. Gbagbo,” Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told a panel of three judges. “If politics failed, violence was seen as politics by other means.”

Human rights activists welcomed the trial as a signal that leaders who resort to violence to strengthen their grip on power would be held to account.

Gbagbo and former youth minister Charles Ble Goude are accused of involvement in atrocities that left 3,000 people dead after the disputed presidential runoff in their West African nation.

As the trial opened, the 70-year-old Gbagbo and Ble Goude, 44, each pleaded not guilty to four charges of crimes against humanity including murder, rape and persecution.

Bensouda said she would call 138 witnesses, including victims of violence and members of Gbagbo's inner circle, to testify about his alleged involvement in plotting post-election violence even before the 2010 vote.

She made particular mention of a woman who was arrested during a demonstration by supporters of Gbagbo's political rival, current President Alassane Ouattara, and detained at a police headquarters for three days.

“During those three dark days she was raped, gang raped at the prefecture of police by armed gendarmes,” Bensouda said.

Gbagbo remains popular among some in Ivory Coast. Dozens massed outside the court before the trial, which is expected to last many months. In Abidjan, the capital, about 300 Gbagbo supporters packed into an events hall in the working-class district of Yopougon to watch the trial. Organizers sold shirts featuring Gbagbo's smiling face.

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