The devious manoeuvres behind ex-Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo's trial at ICC


In April 2011, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, at the centre of a political crisis that followed disputed elections in the country five months earlier, was captured with French help by militiamen acting for his rival, Alassane Ouattara, the country’s current leader. A confidential French foreign ministry document obtained by Mediapart reveals how International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, without any legal basis, was involved in an operation to keep Gbagbo prisoner – five months before the ICC had even opened an investigation into his alleged crimes against humanity, for which he is now on trial in The Hague. Fanny Pigeaud reports on a covert operation in which the ICC appears to have played a key role France’s political manoeuvring in its former West African colony.

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On April 11th 2011, about 30 French army vehicles took up position in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan in front of the smoking remains of the official residence of the country’s president which had been reduced to ruins after bombing raids by French military helicopters.

Inside the building, amid a group of around 100 people, was Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to step down as Ivory Coast president after elections on November 28th 2010 when his rival Alassane Ouattara was declared the winner by the country’s Independent Electoral Commission. After a French armoured vehicle knocked open a hole in the perimeter wall surrounding the residence, a group of armed militiamen loyal to Ouattara entered the ruins and Gbagbo gave himself up to them. Ouattara was at last able to take over the presidency.

Officially, the events that day marked the end of the political and military crisis that had crippled the country since the November presidential elections. But in reality, a secret plan was afoot to make sure Gbagbo was definitively removed from any future involvement Ivory Coast politics.

In Paris, the head of the African affairs department of the French foreign ministry, Stéphane Gompertz, sent out an email that same day, April 11th 2011, addressed to several officials and diplomats within both the ministry and also at the presidential office, the Elysée Palace.

In his email, Gompertz said a French official who worked with Luis Moreno Ocampo, then chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, had “just called me”.

“The prosecutor would like 1/ that Ouattara does not release Gb,” continued Gompertz, referring to Gbagbo, “and 2/ a state in the region send the case to the ICC as fast as possible”, adding: “Ocampo will try to contact Ouattara or one of his close entourage.”

The email (see below) was also addressed to Ocampo. It is one of the more than 40,000 confidential documents obtained by Mediapart and analysed by the journalistic consortium European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) which provided the starting point of a series of reports about the activities of the ICC and its former chief prosecutor, entitled ‘Secrets of the Court’.

The April 11th 2011 email sent out by Stéphane Gompertz, head of the African affairs department of the French foreign ministry. The April 11th 2011 email sent out by Stéphane Gompertz, head of the African affairs department of the French foreign ministry.

Ocampo’s wish to have Gbagbo kept in detention, as described in Gompertz’s email, had no judicial foundation. Importantly, the ICC had led no investigations in Ivory Coast, and therefore no arrest warrant had been issued against the former Ivorian president.

Ocampo had no solid evidence of Gbagbo’s involvement in crimes against humanity, which the ICC is tasked with prosecuting. Ocampo's apparent desire that “a state in the region send the case to the ICC as fast as possible” was in itself a recognition that the ICC had not at that time been officially notified of a case against Gbagbo.

Contacted by Mediapart, Ocampo, who left his post at the ICC in the summer of 2012, declined to offer any comment on the events reported here, leaving open the question as to whether he wittingly acted, without a legal basis, in support of political manoeuvring by France, whose then president Nicolas Sarkozy enjoyed close relations with Ouattara, in its former West African colony. In a book of conversations with French journalists Nathalie Schuck and Frédéric Gerschel, Ça reste entre nous, hein ? (This stays between us, eh?), published in 2014, Sarkozy, speaking after he left office, recounted: “We got Gbagbo out, we put in Alassane Ouattara.”

Nicolas Sarkozy and Alassane Ouattara meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris on June 22nd 2012. © Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters Nicolas Sarkozy and Alassane Ouattara meeting at the Elysée Palace in Paris on June 22nd 2012. © Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The background to the events began in December 2010, at the beginning of the crisis over the disputed final round of presidential elections in Ivory Coast on November 28th. Both Gbagbo, who had been in power since October 2000, and Ouattara claimed victory. Ouattara, a former deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund and, between 1990 and 1993, served as prime minister of Ivory Coast, was credited with winning the election by the Ivorian electoral commission, which was mostly made up of his political supporters. Gbagbo, meanwhile, was proclaimed the winner by the country’s constitutional council, which was presided over by his allies, and which claimed that the voting was marred by fraud in regions of the country, representing about 60% of the national territory, controlled by pro-Ouattara military forces, a coalition known as the Forces Nouvelles (New Forces).

The latter launched a rebellion against the government at the end of 2002, when Ivory Coast was largely split in two, with a predominantly Muslim, rebel-held north and a predominantly Christian south which was under government control. The civil war led to the intervention of a United Nations (UN) peace-keeping mission, UNOCI, and a truce was subsequently signed in 2007. The fragile peace notably collapsed soon after the 2010 elections, when Ouattara received the backing of the UN and also the US, while his most active foreign support came from then French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

On December 11th 2010, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo was contacted by French diplomat Béatrice Le Fraper. Between 2006 and 2010 she had served at the ICC as Ocampo’s senior advisor and principal private secretary, before becoming a member of France’s permanent mission at the UN. “I need to know what happened in your conversation with Alassane Ouattara,” Le Fraper told Ocampo in her December 2010 message.

Both Béatrice Le Fraper and Stéphane Gompertz gave no reply to Mediapart’s invitation to comment on the findings of this report.

In December 2010, the African Union was engaged in mediation in the political crisis in Ivory Coast, where the security situation was still, and briefly, relatively stable. The intervention of the ICC’s chief prosecutor with one of the two men at the heart of the dispute was in clear contradiction with the court’s own requirements of independence and impartiality.    

When Ocampo spoke with Ouattara, the latter was in difficulty. While he had the backing of Western countries, a number of the 55 member-states of the African Union leant their support to his rival Gbagbo. Furthermore, it was Gbagbo who days earlier had been sworn in as president, on December 4th, and who was effectively, for the country's institutions, head of state. Outtara’s government controlled only the Hôtel du Golf, in Abidjan, which served as his campaign headquarters and where he became based in the standoff with Gbagbo. While there, he was in regular contact with both Sarkozy and the French ambassador to Ivory Coast. It was vital for Ouattara to end the deadlock which, the longer it continued, would only weaken his position.

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'The Secrets of the Court' is the result of six months of investigation carried out by six media organisations who are members of the consortium European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), of which Mediapart is a founding member.

More than 40,000 confidential documents – diplomatic cables, bank information, various correspondence – were obtained by Mediapart and analysed by the EIC. For the first time they allow a spotlight to be shone on certain practices of the International Criminal Court, which is based at The Hague in Holland.

Together with Mediapart, the EIC partners involved in the project are Der Spiegel (Germany), NRC Handelsblad (Holland), The Sunday Times (Britain), El Mundo (Spain), L’Espresso (Italy), Le Soir (Belgium), ANCIR (South Africa), Nacional (Serbia) and The Black Sea, an online publication created by the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism which reports on Eastern Europe and Central Asia.