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(Paris) - The Ivorian government took an important step in supporting accountability for the country's postelection atrocities by renewing the mandate of the special unit investigating those crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. The government now needs to ensure adequate staffing, security, and independence for the body to carry out robust investigations.
In June 2011, President Alassane Ouattara's government created the special investigative cell within the Justice Ministry, with a mandate to investigate crimes committed during the six months of violence that followed the country's contested November 2010 presidential elections. The special cell was established to identify individuals responsible for crimes and to build cases against them for trial. At least 3,000 people were killed during the crisis, and armed forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo and President Ouattara both committed war crimes and likely crimes against humanity.
"Extending the special investigative cell's work gives the victims of the postelection violence a reason to hope that they might see justice," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Now the Ivorian government needs to give it the staff, logistical support, and independence to do the job."
During the crisis, forces on both sides committed atrocities against civilians along political, ethnic, and religious lines. The crimes were in many ways the culmination of a decade of violence rooted in the struggle for political power. No one was held to account for any of the crimes committed in the aftermath of the 2000 elections or during the 2002-2003 armed conflict, allowing many of the same civilian and military leaders to remain in positions of influence and to commit or oversee similar crimes during the 2010-2011 postelection crisis.
Identifying those responsible and bringing them to justice is essential if Côte d'Ivoire is to break from its recent history of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The government needs to send the message that anyone who resorts to criminal violence in the quest for political power will be held to account.
By establishing the special investigative cell and a national commission of inquiry immediately after the postelection crisis, President Ouattara's government raised hopes that it was breaking from the legacy of impunity that defined the years under Gbagbo. Ivorian civil society groups strongly supported the cell's creation and have called for the renewal and strengthening of the cell's mandate. However, insufficient government support and a lack of judicial independence have hindered investigations, particularly against pro-Ouattara forces.
The original decree establishing the special cell called for three investigative judges and 20 judicial police officers to lead the investigations. Yet over the last year, the justice minister emptied the special cell of its staff, replacing or removing investigative judges and cutting the number of judicial police officers down to four. In renewing the unit's mandate, the government should, at a minimum, return the staffing to its original levels, Human Rights Watch said. A lack of independence for prosecutors and investigative judges has also undermined the special cell's work. Human Rights Watch has interviewed several former staff at the special cell who described wanting to investigate atrocities by both sides, but said they needed a "green light" from government officials before doing so against pro-Ouattara forces.
For the special cell to effectively investigate and build cases against military or civilian leaders on both sides, the government needs to swiftly improve the protection of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses involved in sensitive cases, Human Rights Watch said. Although the government has had preliminary discussions with donors about improving witness protection, efforts to protect judges, prosecutors, and witnesses remain ad hoc and largely ineffectual, weakening the ability and willingness to pursue cases against high-level officials.
The government should also strongly consider revising the special cell's mandate to focus specifically on the serious crimes committed between December 2010 and May 2011, the period of the postelection crisis. The original decree, signed on June 24, 2011, called for the body to "perform judicial investigations relative to events in Côte d'Ivoire after December 4, 2010." The lack of a clearly defined endpoint allowed the Ouattara government to task the special investigative cell with investigating threats against state security in 2012. The mounting caseload has made it difficult for the special cell to focus on the violent crimes during the postelection crisis, which tend to be sensitive and complex cases.
To investigate and prosecute crimes committed since the crisis, which are generally less complex and raise fewer security concerns, the government should continue its notable efforts to strengthen the regular criminal justice system.
Since the end of the crisis, progress toward justice has been largely one-sided. Investigations of the devastating crimes committed by pro-Gbagbo forces during the crisis have had some success, leading to charges against more than 150 civilian and military leaders as well as the conviction in military court of nine members of Gbagbo's armed forces. The government should be commended for repeatedly rejecting the calls from Gbagbo's party for a general amnesty that would include international crimes, although greater efforts are needed to hold trials swiftly for those in pretrial detention. Unfortunately, the serious crimes by pro-Ouattara forces have not received the same attention. Although the national commission of inquiry reported in August 2012 that Ouattara's Republican Forces summarily executed at least 545 people during the crisis, there has yet to be a single arrest for these crimes.
A new round of trials in Côte d'Ivoire's military court does include some Republican Forces soldiers. But none of the trials concern the serious crimes by members of the Republican Forces in relation to the postelection crisis. The first trial, for example, was for a case of manslaughter by a low-level soldier in September 2011. "Victims of grave crimes committed by the Republican Forces during the postelection crisis deserve the opportunity to see justice done," Bekele said. "To end the impunity that has fueled violence in Côte d'Ivoire over the last decade, authorities need to redouble efforts to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed by the victors as well as by the defeated."