PARIS, FRANCE - The International Criminal Court began a hearing Monday on whether former Ivorian minister and youth activist Charles Ble Goude should face trial on charges of crimes against humanity. A close ally of Ivory Coast's ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, Ble Goude is accused of playing a key role in violence that followed Gbagbo's loss in a 2010 election and his subsequent effort to stay in power.
Sporting spectacles and a dark grey suit, Charles Ble Goude listened impassively to the opening remarks of presiding judge, Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi.
This week's hearing at the International Criminal Court is to decide whether or not 40-year-old Ble Goude will face trial on four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and persecution.
At issue: violence in his native Ivory Coast between November 2010 and April 2011, after the presidential election between longtime President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, the country's current president. Roughly 3,000 people were killed in the crisis that erupted after Gbagbo refused to accept defeat.
Ble Goude was a close ally of Gbagbo and his first lady, Simone. Known as a charismatic firebrand, he headed a militant, pro-Gbagbo group called the "Young Patriots" that was blamed for a campaign of post-election violence against Ouattara supporters. He denies the charges.
Speaking in French - before switching to English - the ICC's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda described events in November 2010, following the disputed presidential results. Within days, she said, the Ivory Coast had switched from hosting a democratic vote to a theatre of violence marked by chaos and division.
"We will demonstrate that the pro-Gbagbo forces -- including forces directly answering to Ble Goude -- that they are responsible for the death, the rapes, serious injuries and arbitrary detention of countless citizens, civilians who were perceived to support Mr. Ouattara. For these brutal criminal acts the prosecution charges Mr. Ble Goude with crimes against humanity and we will request the chamber to commit him for trial," said Bensouda.
But Defense lawyer Nicolas Kaufman dismissed the prosecution's argument, suggesting its case against Ble Goude was weak, unfocused and unfounded. He presented his client as fiercely loyal to ex-president Gbagbo, whose rhetoric may have been abrasive but was not violent.
"I'm not going to deny that Mr. Ble Goude played a central role in the campaign for reelection of Laurent Gbagbo. I will not deny that he fought for public opinion thereafter by challenging the election results. I will not deny that Mr. Ble Goude exploited his popularity and charisma in order to perform these roles with maximum potential. Nor will I deny that he mobilized the youth through large rallies which he organized at various intervals thoroughly the crisis. Nevertheless there is a stark difference between legitimate public activism and criminal conduct," he said.
While human rights activists have cheered the ICC's cases against Ble Goude and Gbagbo, they argue the court should also bring to trial Ouattara supporters accused of similar crimes, to ensure equal justice.
Earlier this month, the ICC confirmed that Gbagbo himself will go on trial for crimes against humanity charges also related to the 2010 and 2011 violence -- making him the first ex-head of state facing prosecution at the Hague-based court.
The Ble Goude hearing runs through Thursday. Judges will then have 60 days to decide whether to bring his case to trial.