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Motives questioned in Ivory Coast genocide charges

- - Wednesday, September 19, 2012

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Ivory Coast prosecutors are pursuing genocide charges against eight top allies of former President Laurent Gbagbo in a move analysts called an apparent attempt to demonize the old regime and demonstrate that local courts can try the most serious cases stemming from post-election violence that ended last year.

At least 3,000 people died in violence that erupted after Mr. Gbagbo tried to cling to power despite having lost the November 2010 election to current President Alassane Ouattara. The Gbagbo allies charged with genocide include former first lady Simone Gbagbo, former Cabinet ministers and the feared former head of the regime's Republican Guard.

Prosecutor Noel Dje Enrike Yahau said the genocide charges are based on evidence that the suspects plotted to eliminate ethnic groups originating in the northern part of the country — which generally supported Mr. Ouattara — as well as Mr. Ouattara's political coalition, known by its French initials, RHDP.

"The fact is these [suspects] were systematically looking for people who were coming from the north and also from the RHDP," Mr. Yahau said. "It was done at a very high level."

Mr. Gbagbo was transferred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in November, becoming the first former Ivorian head of state to be taken into the court's custody. He has been accused of four counts of crimes against humanity but not genocide.

No evidence of genocide

Many analysts see no evidence of genocide, although the violence in Ivory Coast was brutal, with pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces targeting victims based on ethnicity and presumed political affiliation. Under Ivorian law and the 1948 U.N. genocide treaty, which Ivory Coast has ratified, genocide requires an intent to completely or partially destroy a particular group.

"I think it's a mistake to even suggest that what happened here was equivalent to genocide," said Scott Straus, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the violence in Ivory Coast.

"There were clearly attacks where people were singled out by religion, identity, ethnicity, their name. But it was not a logic of elimination. It was not a logic of destruction. It was a logic of oppression."

Relations between the Ouattara administration and Mr. Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front political party remain hostile more than a year after the conflict ended in May 2011. Efforts to resume dialogue have amounted to little, and government officials have blamed Gbagbo allies for involvement in a recent string of attacks targeting Ivory Coast military positions — accusations they deny.

Mr. Straus said Ivorian prosecutors may see the genocide charges as a way to discredit Mr. Ouattara's political rivals.

"It's a way of quickly signaling that they did something terribly wrong," he said.

Other observers said the charges could have implications for Ivory Coast's relationship with the International Criminal Court. The individuals charged with genocide are just eight of more than 100 Gbagbo loyalists to have been detained in Ivorian courts in connection with the post-election violence.

They include some prominent figures — such as Mrs. Gbagbo, the former first lady — who have been widely cited as potential defendants in cases before the International Criminal Court. No further arrest warrants have been made public, prompting speculation that Mr. Ouattara's administration is quietly resisting the transfer of additional suspects to The Hague.

The Ouattara administration has always stated it would cooperate with the court, but in recent months government officials increasingly have argued that the Ivorian legal system is now capable of handling even the most serious post-election cases of violence.

Ivorian Human Rights Minister Gnenema Coulibaly said the government would evaluate any future arrest warrants from the international court on a case-by-case basis.

"We've seen that the justice system has been rehabilitated, and we can judge some crimes here," he said.

Domestic motives

Some believe that Ivorian prosecutors are accusing Mr. Gbagbo's top allies of genocide in a bid to keep the case in the Ivorian courts and avoid the international court, which tries cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

"I think the reason the government is doing this is just to convince the ICC that Ivory Coast can try these cases," said Ali Ouattara, head of the Ivorian Coalition for the international court. "But we think Ivory Coast does not have the ability to do that. For us, the only body that can do this well is the ICC."

Ali Ouattara is not related to President Ouattara.

Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, said Ivory Coast's definitions of atrocity crimes are not as comprehensive as those of the international courts.

She is worried that trials in the Ivory Coast "may fail to address the full range of criminality stemming from the period of post-election violence."

Ivory Coast law defines "political groups" as potential victims of genocide, in addition to the internationally recognized categories of national, ethnic, racial or religious victims.

William Schabas, who specializes in genocide law at England's Middlesex University, noted the difficulty of proving genocide even if political groups are included.

"You can have a lot of politically motivated killings or, for that matter, racially motivated killings," he said. "But these don't show an intent to destroy the group."