THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo has appeared at the International Criminal Court, the first former head of state to face judges at the world's first permanent war crimes court.
Gbagbo was calm and smiled at supporters in the public gallery as the 25-minute hearing opened Monday. He told judges he did not need them to read the charges against him.
Gbagbo was extradited to the Netherlands last week to face charges including murder and rape committed by supporters as he attempted to cling to power. Prosecutors say about 3000 people died in violence by both sides after Gbagbo refused to concede electoral defeat. President Alassane Ouattara took power in April with the help of French and UN forces.
"It's a neocolonialist trial," Gbagbo's adviser Toussaint Alain told reporters in The Hague. "The (ICC) has become an instrument of France … to empower friends and punish the ones who don't follow along."
Gbagbo's lawyer Habiba Toure also challenged the legitimacy of the Gbagbo's detention last week on an ICC warrant while he was under house arrest in northern Ivory Coast.
"In principal, an arrest warrant is delivered to a free individual or a person on the run, which was not the case for Mr. Gbagbo because he was already in the hands of Ivory Coast officials," Toure said.
A handful of supporters gathered outside court before Gbagbo's appearance and also condemned France's role in his ouster.
"This is a masquerade by French President Nicolas Sarkozy," said Abel Naki, who traveled from Paris to be at the court. "Sarkozy orchestrated this coup d'etat."
The protesters' anger underscored lingering tensions between Gbagbo and Ouattara supporters in Ivory Coast.
The court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, stressed last week that both sides of the political divide in Ivory Coast committed crimes in the postelection chaos and that his investigation was continuing, a move intended to head off criticism that Gbagbo's arrest was a case of victor's justice.
Human rights groups say grave abuses also were committed by forces loyal to Ouattara, who enlisted the help of a former rebel group to force Gbagbo from office.
Gbagbo is the sixth suspect taken into custody by the court, which has launched seven investigations, all of them in Africa. A further 12 suspects remain at large and the court has no police force to arrest them.
According to court papers, Gbagbo is charged as an "indirect perpetrator" in a carefully orchestrated campaign of violence against civilians perceived as supporters of Ouattara.