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(Nairobi) – The opening in Côte d’Ivoire on April 11, 2013, of trials against soldiers allegedly implicated in crimes against civilians is a positive development, but little progress has been made in investigating the most politically sensitive cases involving government forces.

Ivorian authorities should strengthen support for prosecuting those implicated in serious international crimes during the 2010 and 2011 post-election violence, Human Rights Watch said. They should also investigate and prosecute any soldiers involved in the July 2012 attack on the Nahibly displaced persons camp, and in the cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees in August and September.

“The opening of trials against soldiers from the Republican Forces is an important step forward in Côte d’Ivoire’s fight against impunity,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But Ivorian authorities need to also pursue the more sensitive cases involving the Republican Forces for which victims have seen no justice, particularly the grave crimes committed during the post-election crisis.”

In an April 9 communiqué, the Ivorian military prosecutor’s office said that trials would begin on April 11 against 33 soldiers for crimes against the population, including premeditated murder, voluntary and involuntary homicide, and theft.

All of the cases deal with events subsequent to the November 2010 to May 2011 post-election crisis. At least 3,000 people were killed after former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept internationally recognized results that proclaimed his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, the victor. International and Ivorian human rights groups, a United Nations-mandated international commission of inquiry, and a national commission of inquiry created by President Ouattara have all documented war crimes and likely crimes against humanity by both pro-Gbagbo forces and the Republican Forces during the crisis.

No member of the Republican Forces – the country’s military, created by decree by Ouattara during the crisis – has been arrested for crimes committed during the six-month post-election crisis.

The communiqué from the military prosecutor’s office said that the first trial would relate to December 2011 events in the central town of Vavoua, when members of the Republican Forces opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing five people. Reports by Agence France-Presse and Radio France Internationale at the time indicated that some of the demonstrators may have been armed. Pro-government newspapers including Le Patrioteand Nord-Sudcriticized soldiers for excessive use of force and identified the civilian victims, who appeared to come primarily from typically pro-Ouattara ethnic groups.

Efforts to address the Ivorian military’s resort to excessive use of force, a problem which long predates the current government, demonstrate progress in the protection of basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Crimes committed during the post-election period may be more sensitive because they were often committed on a larger scale and along political, ethnic, and religious lines. Almost all civil society activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch over the last year indicated that ongoing impunity for one side of the conflict – the government forces – risks sowing the seeds for future violence.

“Prosecuting people for serious international crimes can be difficult, but the lack of justice can carry high costs,” Wells said. “Chronic impunity has appeared to feed the repeated episodes of violence in Côte d’Ivoire over the last decade, with civilians paying the greatest price.”

On April 4, 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report, “Turning Rhetoric into Reality: Accountability for Serious International Crimes in Côte d’Ivoire,”which analyzed the country’s uneven steps toward justice for crimes during the post-election violence.

While prosecutors have charged more than 150 people with crimes committed during the post-election violence, none of those charged comes from the Republican Forces or allied militia groups. The Human Rights Council’s independent expert on the situation of human rights in Côte d’Ivoire reported in January that at least 55 of those from the Gbagbo side have been charged with violent crimes, including genocide, attacks against the civilian population, and murder. Others have been charged with economic crimes or attacks against state security.

High-level government officials have repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that crimes from the post-election crisis will almost entirely be dealt with by civilian judicial authorities, including a special investigative cell created by President Ouattara in June 2011. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated, in its guidelines on a fair trial, “The only purpose of military courts shall be to determine offenses of a purely military nature committed by military personnel.”

Human Rights Watch’s April report focused on concrete, straightforward measures the Ivorian government could take to improve support for civilian prosecutors and judges in investigating and prosecuting serious international crimes. Important measures include developing a prosecutorial strategy; protecting judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and witnesses; reforming the criminal procedure code; bolstering prosecutorial and judicial independence; and recruiting judicial police from all affected communities.

In addition to serious crimes committed during the post-election violence, several other high-profile incidents involving solders from the Republican Forces have yet to lead to arrests. On July 20, the Nahibly camp for internally displaced people outside the western town of Duékoué was attacked by a group that appears to have included at least some members of the Republican Forces. Several mass graves have been found that are believed to include victims of summary executions related to the camp attack. In a March 27 statement, the International Federation for Human Rights said that there had been some progress in the investigation, but noted that there had yet to be any arrests.

In a November report, Human Rights Watch documented widespread human rights abuses by members of the Republican Forces against young men from pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups, following a spate of attacks on Ivorian military installations in August and September that were probably carried out, at least in part, by pro-Gbagbo militants. Abuses included mass arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, extortion, cruel and inhuman treatment, and, in some cases, torture. No member of the Republican Forces appears to have been arrested for these crimes, despite documentation by the UN, human rights groups, and journalists that pinpointed specific military camps where serious abuses occurred.

Several commanders implicated in having a command role of forces committing these abuses had been previously implicated for a similar role in grave crimes during the post-election crisis. Continued impunity makes it more likely that commanders will tolerate or commit the same crimes whenever there are moments of tension, Human Rights Watch said.

April 11, when the military trials are set to open, is the second anniversary of Laurent Gbagbo’s arrest by the Republican Forces. In late November 2011, Côte d’Ivoire transferred Gbagbo to The Hague on a warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Gbagbo remains there in custody pending a determination of whether there is enough evidence to try him for four counts of crimes against humanity.

“The two year anniversary of Gbagbo’s arrest is an important moment to reflect on real progress made by the Ouattara government, including in rebuilding the economy, restoring infrastructure, and re-establishing judicial authority,” Wells said. “But it is also a reminder of how much time has passed without sufficient headway on crucial issues like security sector reform and justice for sensitive cases involving the Republican Forces.”


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