Ivory Coast’s former first lady, Simone Gbagbo, went on trial on Tuesday, accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes for her alleged role in a civil war that followed a 2010 presidential election and killed around 3,000 people.
The trial, the West African nation’s first for crimes against humanity, is being held in a domestic court after the government rejected her extradition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
It has already drawn criticism from Gbagbo’s supporters, who claim it is politically motivated, as well as from rights groups, who accuse the prosecution of rushing the investigation.
Her husband, ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, is already before the ICC on charges linked to the brief conflict, which was sparked by his refusal to accept defeat to Alassane Ouattara in an election run-off.
Flanked by policemen, Simone Gbagbo, a key figure in her husband’s regime, greeted several dozen cheering supporters gathered at the entrance of the court in the commercial capital Abidjan with waves and smiles.
The prosecution alleges she was part of a small group of party officials from Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) that planned violence against Ouattara’s supporters to keep him out of power.
“The FPI put in place a crisis cell in January 2011 that met at the presidential residence and constituted the organ charged with planning and organising the repression,” an indictment read in court stated.
Simone Gbagbo did not immediately enter a plea. However, the indictment said she rejected the charges and denied the existence of a crisis cell at the presidency.
As each witness’s name was read in court, she turned in her seat, scanning the gallery.
“This is a political trial,” said Rodrigue Dadje, a member of her defence team. “Mrs Gbagbo has the right to be judged in court like any Ivorian, but her trial must be fair and that isn’t the case. We already knew what the verdict would be even before the trial even opened.”
The former first lady’s trial opened a day after Chad’s ex-president Hissene Habre was convicted by a special tribunal in Senegal for ordering the killing and torture of thousands of political opponents during his eight-year rule.
The success of that trial is likely to bolster the position of many African leaders who say African courts should be left to mete out justice as they see fit.
Having emerged as the victor of both the polls and the war, Ouattara, now president, has refused to honour an ICC warrant against Simone, claiming that the Ivorian justice system is now capable of judging her.
In an earlier trial, she was convicted in March 2015 of offences against the state and given 20 years in prison, a sentence that was upheld on appeal this month.
However, despite the conviction, rights campaigners criticised the trial for failing to provide evidence linking her and other political leaders to violence by their supporters.
Human rights groups including the International Federation for Human Rights, which was representing nearly 250 victims in the case against her, announced this week that it would not play a part in the trial.
They claimed the prosecution’s investigation had been rushed in order to respond to the ICC warrant and the trial would not give victims a full picture of the Gbagbo administration’s orchestration of the post-election violence.