Emptiness

Nobody to be seen. Sheer emptiness in front of the public entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. That is awkward. As media we were told to arrive no less than one hour and a half in advance because of the ‘high attendance expected for the hearing.’ But now it seems hardly anyone has turned up. The two uniformed guards standing near the X-ray machines have nothing to do. When I approach them, they are clearly instructed to check the media, and to fish out any non-registered journalists. After some difficulties finding my name, one of the guards ticks it off. A quick glance on the document in his hand tells me there are not even that many media on the list. I am puzzled.

Where are the masses, I wonder. ‘You are quite strict, today, ’ I say to the court official at the lobby who arranges my press pass.

‘It is because of the demonstrators,’ she explains. During the last hearing supporters of Laurent Koudou Gbagbo, the former president of Côte d’Ivoire who is suspected of being responsible for crimes against humanity against his own people, came to rally outside the court. They are the real reason the press is told to come early. Apparantly the court wants to prevent any mixing up between journalists, guests and Gbagbo-fans. This institution with its rules, procedures and strict control has an uneasy relationship with a lively outside world that has its own rituals and ways of performing. But today the skies are grey. It is freezing cold. There are no crowds to be seen on this quiet Tuesday afternoon, 11 December 2012.

One hour and a half later, even the public gallery has an empty feel. Just some twenty people have taking their seats. Half of them are journalists from Côte d’Ivoire, who have been invited by the ICC to be informed about the functioning of the court and to follow this week’s proceedings. The rest of the rows are empty.

Pathologies When the curtain goes up, and behind the thick bulletfree glass the court room becomes visible for the audience, it turns out that even the suspect, Mr. Gbagbo, is not present for this session on procedural matters such as setting a new date for the confirmation of charges hearing. Initially that hearing – during which the prosecutors present their first evidence on the basis of which the judges will decide whether there is sufficient ground to start a trial – was planned for 18th of June 2012. Since then the crucial session has been postponed because of claims by the defence that Mr. Gbagbo is not fit to stand trial. A slight disappointment, but not really a big surprise that the ‘president suspect’ is not present. To find out about Mr. Gbagbo’s physical and mental state, the court called three medical experts – doctor An Chuc, psychologist Bruno Daunizeau and psychiatrist Pierre Lamothe. Last November the three judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber who are dealing with the Gbagbo-case, released the medical findings. Despite the redactions to protect the privacy of the suspect, the observations were quite revealing. All experts acknowledge that Mr. Gbagbo suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a hospitalisation syndrome. Apart from that common conclusion, however, they differed greatly. Take Dr. Chuc, who claimed that Mr. Gbagbo is not only ‘suffering from several physical pathologies,’ such as difficulty and pain when walking, but also ‘lacks the physical and mental capacities to understand and assimilate in detail the nature, causes and content of the charges against him.’ According to Dr. Chuc the suspect is neither able to instruct his lawyers properly nor capable to make a ‘clear, consistent and comprehensible statement.’

This sounds not only very serious to me, but, thinking about privacy, quite detailed too. Any person who would receive such an assessment on his or her mental and physical state would be terrified and shocked. I wonder how Mr. Gbagbo, who is a historian by profession, and apparently an amateur chemist and physicist as well, would view these conclusions. But actually these observations were good news for the sake of the argument of the defence that their client is unfit for trial and should be released.

The second expert, Dr. Daunizeau, concluded the suspect suffered from depression, problems with memory, concentration, and an intellectual deficit. Gbagbo’s ‘health condition does not correspond to his age, nor does it correspond to his level of culture, nor to what one would expect from someone in his professional situation.’ He concluded that Mr. Gbagbo ‘is the mere shadow of his former self.’

The third expert, Dr. Lamothe, however reached a different conclusion. He said that Gbagbo might suffer from a minimal PTSD, but is capable of ‘performing complex intellectual reasoning and of expressing himself at a scholarly level.’ His observations provide an interesting insight in Mr. Gbagbo’s personality. Apparantly the ex-president appears to be ‘far more concerned with salvaging his image’ of how he will be ‘judged by history’ than with his strategy for his trial. In fact, Mr. Gbagbo expressed a ‘desire’ to participate in the proceedings against him, mainly to convey ‘his political message.’ The ex-president simply ignored the charges, Dr. Lamothe concluded.

Such a diagnose would have been slightly better news for any person undergoing such a test, but it was a bad omen for Mr. Gbagbo’s lawyers. Indeed, the judges decided to go along with Dr. Lamothe’s assessment and declared the former head of state fit for trial. A series of adjustments could make things more comfortable for Mr. Gbagbo, such as shorter court sessions, appropriate facilities to rest during breaks, and the possibility to follow the sessions via video-link.

Defeated There was an interesting match between the picture that was painted of the ex-presidents inner world and earlier impressions I had of him. The first and last time I had seen him in court was at the 5th of December 2011, just six days after he had been extradited by Côte d’Ivoire and his arrival in the ICC’s detention unit in Scheveningen, when the former head of state was present during the initial appearance hearing. Being suddenly transferred from an African country to be detained in The Netherlands is usually an destabilising experience, during which a persons life is put upside down. Often newly arrived detainees are being watched carefully by prison staff, to make sure they will not harm themselves.

In court Gbagbo looked like a defeated person, while seated in the chair for suspects, with a guard on his side. An old sad man, who saw himself as a victim, and certainly not as a perpetrator. A powerful official who once had been in charge, and had difficulties coming to terms with his new situation after loosing his high profile job. When presiding judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi gave him the possibility to speak, Mr. Gbagbo stood up from his chair. He had no complaints about his stay in The Netherlands. ‘Your Honour, the conditions of my detention at the Court here at The Hague are fine,’ he said. He seemed even to be relieved to be safe and secure. He continued: ‘It is my arrest conditions that are not so correct.’ Gbagbo explained how he was captured on the 11th of April 2011, scenes that were broadcasted worldwide. Some fifty French tanks had surrounded the presidents residence while the helicopters has been shelling the place. It is very well possible that his PTSD had developed during these frightful days. ‘I observed my Minister of the Interior killed right in front of me.’ He saw his eldest son, who was arrested and detained as well, being beaten. Gbagbo witnessed his personal physician, Dr Blaze, going through the same ordeal. ‘I thought he was going to die, but fortunately he survived, contrary to the case of the Minister of the Interior.’

But strange enough Mr. Gbagbo made no reference to Mrs. Gbagbo. No word about the glamourous First Lady, who was said to have been involved in organising death squads. His silence over her fate was all the more strange since they had been arrested together by Ivorian rebels. While the ex-president himself was not badly hurt, pictures of the former First Lady being surrounded by celebrating militia with her clothes partly ripped from her body, suggest something else. On these photo’s all glamour is gone. She looks like a poor and terribly abused woman. One can read the shock in her eyes. No surprise that soon after her arrest, questions were raised whether Mrs Gbagbo had been raped by the rebels. In court however. Mr. Gbagbo seemed to have forgotten about his wife. He went on to explain how he was taken to the Golf Hotel, where his rival Alassane Ouattara had his headquarters. Two days later Mr. Gbagbo and his physician were transferred by the United Nations mission to the city of Korhogo, about 600 kilometres north of Abidjan. ‘I was lodged in a house. There was a bed, a mosquito net, a shower, and at my request I was offered two meals a day.’ It was true, somehow Mr. Gbagbo seemed to have lost weight since he was captured. The former president was quick to explain it had been his own decision to sacrifice himself. ‘I had been offered three meals a day, but I had decided to take only two.’ Still no word about his wife.

He had a hard time while being detained in his country. ‘I was unable to see the sun, and the very few times that I was able to see the sun was when my lawyers arrived,’ Mr. Gbagbo told the court. International standards had not been applied. It had been a struggle for his council, Mr. Altit, to get access to his client. While talking Gbagbo apparantly became aware of the impression he made. ‘This is not an appeal for people to take pity on me. I am simply trying to describe the imprisonment that I was subject to. I was not able to take a walk. I was not able to go out and to see the sun. I had several other health conditions, in addition to those I had already had, and I am no longer a young person. As you can realise, your Honour, I am not 20 or 30 years old. I am 66 years old today. My shoulder hurts, my wrists hurt.’

A pair of trousers and a shirt

Then, one day, the deposed president was driven to the magistrate in Korhogo, where he met his lawyers. The Ivorian sentencing judge arrived, presented an envelope and said: ‘Look, this is the warrant of arrest.’ Gbagbo was taken to the car. He thought he was going to be returned to his place of detention. But the car drove straight to the airport. ‘Where am I going by plane?’ Gbagbo asked the guards. ‘You are going to The Hague,’ he was told. ‘And so I laughed because I had understood. And that is how I travelled without anything except my pair of trousers and my shirt. I did not have anything else at all.’ This kind of surprise act had not been necessary at all, he asserted. ‘If Iʹm told that, “Mr Gbagbo, you are going to The Hague,” I will board the plane and I go to The Hague. But once again we were deceived.’ Mr. Gbagbo explained he was not telling his story for his own sake. He just hoped by exposing his experiences to prevent such violations from happening again. The ex-president was not a man who would refuse to appear in court: ‘If I am being accused it means that there is evidence on the basis of which I am being accused, and then I appear, I would like to see what that evidence is, I will challenge that evidence and then you hand down your judgment.’ With those words the former president concluded his statement. ‘As for the detention here, the conditions are normal. I do not have any problem at all. Thank you, your Honour.’

Couple

It had been a slightly surreal scene. To see a man who had been in charge of a country, just talking about himself. As his speech progressed, he seemed to start enjoying it again being the centre of attention, addressing people, who would listen to his words. Was this a former head of state addressing a court? I missed any broader reference to Côte d’Ivoire, where people had suffered immensly during the election violence. It seemed nobody outside the small presidential circle mattered to the suspect. I could not help myself thinking that Mr. Gbagbo, who had been a president for 10 years, suffered from, what I would call ‘VIP-itis.’ There are many stories of people who have been in power and centre of attention for too long. They get used to the fact that everything turns around themselves and their entourage. Mr. Gbagbo seemed to belong to that category. Was it deliberate or subconscience? Mr. Gbagbo who presented himself as a friendly but disappointed elderly person, a man of word, a sort of granddad who had been tricked into a plane. He had talked loosely about accusations against him, but seemed indeed to ignore the fact he was charged with murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution and other inhumane acts allegedly committed after elections between 16 December 2010 and 12 April 2011. His presentation reminded me of the rumours. That Côte d’Ivoire was not so much ruled by Mr. Gbagbo, but rather by his wife, Mrs. Simone Gbagbo. The cliché that behind every strong man, there is a strong woman, seemed indeed to have resonated in The Hague as well. On 29 February 2012 the judges of Pre-Trial Chamber issued a sealed arrest warrant against the wife of the detained president. Nine months passed. But no sign of Mrs Gbagbo. Then the Judges decided on 22 November to unseal the warrant of arrest against Simone Gbagbo, who is charged with the same crimes against humanity as her husband.

Interestingly the ICC has stopped short however of charging the Ouatarra-camp, which is suspected of having committed international crimes as well. Unless there are some unsealed arrest warrants out there, the court can be accused of victor’s justice – just charging the loosers.

Although there has not not been any sign of her, but if the ex-First Lady is extradited, it will be for the first time a couple will be detained in the ICC-detention centre, with its topstandard facilities. How would that work? Are Mr. and Mrs. Gbagbo still on good terms? How would they be detained? In separate cells next to each other? Would they, as detainees, decide together what they would do during the day? Going to a painting class, to the fitness or doing the laundry? Or watching television, keeping up with the international news? Talking about what they would have for dinner?

So far this scenario has not become reality. The Ivorian authorities don’t seem keen to extradite another Gbagbo to the ICC in The Hague. For now the prison cell for the former First Lady of Côte d’Ivoire, accused of committing terrible crimes, will remain, empty.