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Human Rights Focus on Ivory Coast Paramilitary Trial - 2001-07-31

Eight paramilitary police officers are on trial in Ivory Coast for the massacre of 57 men. Their case is focusing international attention on the issue of respect for human rights in this West African country. The trial is taking place as the country tries to lure back international aid that was suspended after its first-ever coup in 1999.

The 57 bodies found in a forest outside Abidjan in October were those of young men believed to be supporters of Alassane Ouattara, a leading political opponent of President Laurent Gbagbo.

The killings happened during a spate of street violence in which supporters of Mr. Gbagbo battled supporters of Mr. Ouattara following the ouster of military ruler General Robert Guei.

Witnesses say paramilitary police dragged the young men into a police camp and shot them. Those killed were members of Mr. Ouattara's Dioula ethnic group.

The incident caused an outcry among international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which condemned the killings and called on the Ivorian government to punish those responsible.

The Gbagbo government denies responsibility for the massacre, saying it took place hours before Mr. Gbagbo was sworn in as president.

Most international aid to Ivory Coast has been suspended since the country's first military coup in 1999.

The European Union and other foreign donors have said they will not resume aid until the country improves its human rights record.

The massacre and the ongoing trial have divided a nation already struggling with a political crisis that pits Ouattara supporters - who are mostly Muslim northerners of the ethnic Dioula group - against Christian southerners of other ethnicities who support Mr. Gbagbo. Ouattara supporters continue to demand new elections after Mr. Ouattara was barred from running for president in October because of doubts about his nationality.

Regardless of their political views, both sides view the trial of the eight officers with skepticism.

Henriette Diabate, the secretary general of Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans party, tells VOA she doubts the sincerity of the government's intentions in putting the officers on trial. "The conditions in which the trial is taking place," Ms.Diabate says, "make us believe that it is a whitewash by the government to get international organizations to resume aid."

She says she does not believe the police officers could have acted on their own in killing the 57 young men. She says their commanders should also be on trial. "How can someone stand up and decide on his own to do what has been done here: this carnage, this holocaust. Others had a part in this," Mrs. Diabate says. "If justice is to be done, it needs to be done at a level higher in the chain of command. Punishment must be handed down not just at the level of these eight officers. The process would be a facade."

The court proceedings, which began July 24 and resumed Tuesday, do not include the testimony of witnesses representing the victims. On the streets of Abidjan, a teacher who identifies himself as a supporter of President Gbagbo, says he, too, is skeptical about the trial because witnesses are not coming forward. "We must let the proceedings take their course. If the policemen are guilty, they should be convicted. But," he says, "it is said there were witnesses, and those witnesses say they fear for their safety. I think it is an excuse to not appear. A witness who goes before the media, if he is killed, that in itself will render those who kill him guilty." The teacher says, "The current government is trying to present a clean image here, so it would not find reason in having a witness killed."

Ibrahim Toure recently appeared on a radio program saying he was among those rounded up the day of the massacre, but managed to escape. He and others who say they witnessed the killing are not appearing in court for fear of retribution by the paramilitary police.

The eight officers have been allowed to go free pending the trial. Some have even been promoted since the massacre.

A special U.N. commission investigated the October killings and issued a report on July 20, blaming the paramilitary police for the massacre. The commission called on the Gbagbo government to prosecute those responsible and improve human rights training for police forces.