ABIDJAN - An Ivory Coast court has ruled that former first lady Simone Gbagbo will be tried in absentia for crimes against humanity after she and her defense team refused to appear. Her husband, Laurent Gbagbo, is being tried at the Hague, but Ivory Coast refused to transfer his wife. Now amid uncertainty over the future of the ICC in Africa, her trial may point to some of the challenges national courts face in dealing with these cases.
As the judge announced his decision Wednesday not to force former first lady Simone Gbagbo to appear in court to face charges of crimes against humanity, a man in the audience shook his head in disbelief and sighed. A few meters from him, the defense dock stood empty.
The former first lady had previously said she wanted to be tried at home to face her compatriots.
Rodrigue Dadjé, one of her lawyers, said the decision to go on without her discredits the court.
Dadjé said “if Simone Gbagbo and her defense team don’t participate in this trial, it is not credible anymore.”
But that’s exactly what they want, said general prosecutor Aly Yeo. He said everybody knows the boycott is “a move to discredit the trial.”
Gbagbo's husband, former president Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede defeat in 2010 elections and step down. The ensuing conflict killed at least 3000 civilians.
Simone Gbagbo is accused of helping to orchestrate killings and attacks against supporters of her husband’s opponent. She was already sentenced to 20 years in prison in a separate trial last year for undermining state security and organizing armed gangs. She has maintained her innocence.
Laurent Gbagbo now awaits trial at the Hague. But Ivory Coast refused to honor an ICC arrest warrant for his wife.
Current president Alassane Ouattara has continued to voice support for the International Criminal Court, even as three African nations have announced they will withdraw. But Ouattara has also insisted that national courts should be able to deal with high profile crimes.
Moussa Traoré, deputy president of the Ivorian section of the Coalition for the ICC, said the Simone Gbagbo trial is a test.
He said what is at stake is the credibility of Ivorian justice because it is a major challenge to show that an Ivorian court is capable of trying such serious crimes.
In Abidjan, the general prosecutor dismissed all criticisms of the legitimacy of this trial, pointing to the recent trial of ex-Chadian president Hissene Habré in Senegal by a special African Union tribunal.
Yeo said Habré was brought to the court by force and he didn't say a word, and when the verdict was announced, everybody applauded it as an exemplary trial. He said he believes this trial is absolutely credible because she had plenty of opportunities to defend herself and her court-appointed lawyers will defend her.
But when the trial opened in Abidjan last May, human rights groups immediately withdrew their participation as civil parties, claiming, like the ICC, that the Ivorian investigation to prove Simone Gbagbo's culpability was incomplete.
The trial has since been delayed several times, most recently when the former first lady and her lawyers refused to appear after their failed attempts to summon several high-level officials, including National Assembly president Guillaume Soro, to testify.
Human Right Watch’s West Africa researcher, Jim Wormington, said compelling witnesses to appear is just one of the challenges, even for the ICC.
“What is the major challenge in these type of cases is showing the connection between Simone Gbagbo and the crimes that were committed by Gbagbo’s supporters. And I think that’s the challenge that we’re also seeing in the ICC in the Gbagbo’s trial, but obviously the ICC has spent many years preparing to try to show the connections between Laurent Gbagbo and crimes committed by his supporters,” he said.
Simone Gbagbo’s trial will resume on November 28. She faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.