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Many questions after Simone Gbagbo's heavy sentence
20 March 2015

It was a case that could have shed light on a painful episode in the history of Côte d’Ivoire and permitted the country to find closure, if only partly, following the post-electoral violence of 2010 and 2011.

Instead, the trial of former first lady Simone Gbagbo and her 82 co-accused has provoked strong reaction all round and has been seen as an indictment against the Ivorian justice system itself. Gbagbo was tried and convicted in under three months: a record for cases as complex as this one.

Predictably, the pro-Gbagbo opposition decried it as a political trial and spoke of ‘victor’s justice’. Many independent analysts and human rights activists have also condemned the shoddy work of the judiciary and say the trial was hasty and inconclusive.

On 10 March 2015, Simone Gbagbo was sentenced to 20 years in jail for ‘attempting to undermine the state’ and for her role in the post-election violence, which cost the lives of over 3 000 people. The sentence was double the number of years requested by the prosecutor. On Monday 16 March, both the defence and the prosecution lodged an appeal – indicating some dissatisfaction with the process from both sides.

The trial casts a shadow over Côte d’Ivoire’s entire justice system

Clearly the view is that justice has not been done – a damaging perception given the fragility of the Ivorian reconciliation process. Even if, like some suspect, President Alassane Ouattara decides to grant Simone Gbagbo a presidential pardon ahead of elections in October this year.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also yet to make a pronouncement about the outcome of the case. An arrest warrant was issued against Simone Gbagbo in 2012 and is still outstanding. The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) has now called upon the Ivorian government to make sure justice is done in the cases of grave crimes against humanity that are still ongoing. If not, the FIDH says Simone Gbagbo should be transferred to The Hague, where her husband Laurent and one of his henchmen, Charles Blé Goudé, are awaiting trial.

Rinaldo Depagne, Project Director at the International Crisis Group in Dakar, says the trial casts a shadow over Côte d’Ivoire’s entire justice system. According to Depagne it was the first full sitting of a criminal court – a cour d’assises – in Côte d’Ivoire in 20 years. ‘It is difficult to understand how a country that is so rich and provides 40% of the top managers of the region, has such a poor justice system,’ he says.

The conduct of the trial has been criticised for the lack of conclusive evidence brought before the court, the relatively short trial period and the significant difference between the sentence requested by the prosecution and the final sentence handed down by the court. The FIDH, in its statement, released together with those of other human rights organisations, also ‘deplores the weak quality of the investigation’.

Depagne says it is well known to what extent Simone Gbagbo was behind many of her husband’s actions since he came to power in 2000. ‘Still, it’s something the justice system has to prove,’ he says.

The case was relatively short compared to other complex trials of this nature

Simone Gbagbo was certainly not the type of first lady to only visit schools and community projects in high heels and jewellery while her husband attends important meetings. She has been credited as being the driving force behind her husband’s ascension to power and the radicalisation of his regime in its later years. Côte d’Ivoire’s former ‘iron lady’ was a fiery evangelist who, in the last days of her husband’s reign, believed the Gbagbos had a God-given right to rule.

Ottilia Maunganidze, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) also expressed her doubts over the conduct of the trial. She says that although the matter has been investigated for a number of years following the arrest of the Gbagbos in April 2011, the case was relatively short in comparison to other complex trials of this nature. The trial was delayed several times and only started on 29 December last year, followed by sentencing barely six weeks later. ‘You needed to show a connection between the actions of the accused and the 3 000 victims,’ says Maunganidze.

She has been credited as being the driving force behind her husband’s ascension to power

Following the sentencing, some have asked whether this means the ICC will now close its case against Simone Gbagbo. Maunganidze says the arrest warrant can only be withdrawn if the ICC prosecutor applies for a withdrawal at the pre-trial chamber of the ICC and explains her reasons for doing so. The charges against Simone Gbagbo at the ICC are different since they are for ‘crimes against humanity’ rather than ‘crimes against the state’, but based largely on the same facts. It is unlikely, however, that the charges will be withdrawn while the possibility of a presidential pardon hangs in the air, says Maunganidze.

Depagne says if such a pardon is on the cards, it is not likely to happen before September. The candidates for the presidential elections will then be known and such a pardon is highly political.

Allan Ngari, an ISS researcher, says that if Ouattara does decide on a presidential pardon, it would be difficult to see the rationale behind conducting the trial in the first place. ‘What use is there of a retributive process if a convicted person does not serve the sentence prescribed? If national reconciliation is the goal, why hasn’t the Commission on Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation been actively pursued in relation to those held responsible for the post-election violence?’

Years of bitter animosity lie between Ouattara and Simone Gbagbo, not least because Ouattara had been excluded by the Gbagbos from running in elections, due to a fierce campaign to discredit him based on his origins. However, some say a pardon might be the only way Ouattara can appear committed to reconciliation without having to give up one of his own camp.

Ouattara and his government have been slammed for not initiating any judicial procedure against anyone who fought to oppose Gbagbo at the time. It is seen by many as an example of ‘victor’s justice’ in Côte d’Ivoire. Neither Simone Gbagbo’s trial, nor those of her co-accused, has helped to convince those who doubt the impartiality of the process.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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