Gbagbo was told at his secluded place of detention in northern Ivory Coast on Tuesday that a warrant for his arrest had been issued by the ICC, which immediately began his transfer.
“Yes, Gbagbo is on the plane, heading to the ICC,” his lawyer Lucie Bourthoumieux told Reuters.
An Ivorian plane landed at 4am on Wednesday in Rotterdam and was believed to be carrying Gbagbo. It taxied to a hangar where it was met by a convoy of black cars. The procedure was similar to when the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic were transferred to other international tribunals in The Hague.
The sudden move came a year and a day after a disputed presidential run-off election between the incumbent Gbagbo and his challenger Alassane Ouattara plunged Ivory Coast back into civil war.
The ICC is investigating killings, rapes and other abuses committed during the four-month conflict triggered by Gbagbo’s refusal to cede power to Ouattara, whose victory was recognised by the UN and other international bodies.
Ouattara’s French-backed forces deposed Gbagbo in April, ending a struggle that killed 3,000 people and displaced more than a million.
Bourthoumieux said Ivorian justice authorities showed Gbagbo the arrest warrant on Tuesday morning in the northern town of Korhogo, where he has been under house arrest for the past seven months.
Gbagbo’s Paris-based adviser Toussaint Alain said in an emailed statement: “I condemn… this victor’s justice.”
A decision to try Gbagbo at the ICC would be all the more controversial for many Ivorians after ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said this month that Libya could try Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam at home, despite an ICC arrest warrant against him for crimes against humanity.
But Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the decision as “a major step toward ensuring justice”. Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at HRW, said: “This is a big day for the victims of Côte d’Ivoire’s horrific post-election violence. That Laurent Gbagbo now has to answer to the court sends a strong message to Ivorian political and military leaders that no one should be above the law.”
Gbagbo is the first former head of state taken into custody by the ICC. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have likewise been subject to ICC arrest warrants, but neither has come into ICC custody.
Keppler said: “The ICC is playing its part to show that even those at the highest levels of power cannot escape justice when implicated in grave crimes.”
HRW also called on the ICC prosecutor to move swiftly on investigations for grave crimes committed by forces allied with Ouattara. It said domestic prosecutors have charged more than 120 people linked to the Gbagbo camp with post-election crimes, but none from the pro-Ouattara forces.
The climate in Ivory Coast is already tense, with Gbagbo’s FPI party boycotting legislative polls next month in protest at the detention of FPI officials in connection with alleged crimes committed during the conflict.
Like his election loss, Gbagbo’s indictment should prove divisive, although militiamen who backed him during the poll dispute have largely fled, been disarmed or are in hiding, so are unlikely to be able to cause much trouble.
Gbagbo’s spokesman, Justin Kone Katinan, said: “This is a very serious deed by the ICC, wanting to transfer Gbagbo. It is a serious deed that Ivorians will not accept.”
Jack Koutouan, 67, a retired insurance salesman from the predominantly pro-Gbagbo neighborhood of Yopougon, called the move by The Hague “an abuse of the law”.
He told the Associated Press: “Are we not an independent country? Here we have judges that can judge our citizens. What good come out of transferring him to The Hague? That makes it look like we are incompetent. It’s an indignity on our part, we as Africans.”
Tom Wilson, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risks consultancy, said: “The ICC warrant saves Ouattara from the difficult job of having to try Gbagbo in Ivory Coast. But by letting him go he risks upsetting Gbagbo loyalists, whom he needs to appease to maintain stability.”
The ICC plans to focus on two to six people thought most responsible for atrocities, the prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo said during a visit to the country last month.
He stressed the court would only investigate crimes going back to the election, the first round of which was last October, and not those committed earlier, during the crisis that followed a failed 2002 rebellion against Gbagbo that split the country. Gbagbo’s camp have rejected that time limit as unfair.
The ICC is currently handling 11 cases, including the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, alleged war crimes committed in the Central African Republic, and alleged genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.
David Smith, The Guardian