— Ivory Coast’s military tribunal has begun trying more than 30 soldiers for crimes including assault and murder. Critics have been accusing the government of President Alassane Ouattara of shielding his military backers from the law.
The tribunal announced this week that a total of 33 soldiers would soon be brought to trial.
The proceedings Thursday concerned a December 2011 incident in which soldiers allegedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in the central town of Vavoua. The U.N. independent expert on human rights in Ivory Coast said five people died in the shooting.
The demonstrators had been protesting the death of a young man named Fofana Adama, who had been arrested by the army. The U.N. expert said Adama died as a result of mistreatment by government forces.
Lieutenant Charles Awou Akodia, the tribunal’s judicial clerk, laid out the details of the charges against the seven suspects in the case.
He says the men have been charged with manslaughter, murder and assault.
“The charge sheet indicates that after Fofana Adama died of his injuries in a private clinic, the demonstrators began to assemble and the situation deteriorated quickly, becoming uncontrollable,” he said. “Calm only returned after the intervention of U.N. forces and military forces from nearby towns.”
The launch of the proceedings came two years to the day after former President Laurent Gbagbo was arrested from his Abidjan bunker, ending a power struggle between him and current President Ouattara. Gbagbo's refusal to leave office after losing the November 2010 presidential runoff vote sparked five months of violence that claimed at least 3,000 lives.
Since the end of the crisis, more than 150 Gbagbo supporters have been charged with crimes related to the violence, according to Human Rights Watch
In recent months, Ivory Coast's judiciary has come under fire for not pursuing cases against Ouattara’s military backers. No pro-Ouattara forces have been charged in connection with the violence, despite widespread evidence of human rights abuses on both sides.
The current military is composed mainly of fighters who backed Ouattara.
All of the cases the military tribunal plans to try in the coming weeks concern crimes that were committed after the conflict ended.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the new cases are a positive development, but called for more progress in pursuing what he called “politically sensitive” cases - including crimes committed during the post-election violence as well as more recent alleged abuses.
"It is a positive sign in terms of the government starting to address impunity in the military - particularly the Vavoua incident, in which soldiers appeared to have used excessive force against a demonstration," said Wells. "At the same time, the government has yet to make progress on any of the sensitive cases that touch the military. It is crucial that this really be the first step toward justice for all of the crimes that have been committed by soldiers over the last few years. "
The military tribunal has said cases involving alleged extortion by soldiers at roadblocks, a common complaint throughout the country, will be heard beginning in June.