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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Dressed in a white undershirt, long dark trousers, and plastic flip-flops, Florent Tahé gave an angry frown as he took a break from his work. He had spent the better part of the morning unloading 140-pound bags of cocoa beans from the back of a cargo truck in San Pedro, in southwestern Ivory Coast. It was dirty, backbreaking work, and it paid less than $5 a day for a 10-hour shift. But it was a job, and for young men in West Africa, those are in short supply.
Ivory Coast, mercifully, is no longer making regular, front-page news. More than a year has passed since President Laurent Gbagbo was forced from power after refusing to accept election results that didn't go his way. More than 3,000 people were killed and a million or more displaced in the four months of fighting that led to Gbagbo's ouster in April 2011. But the conflict ceased, for the most part, with his departure, and the country seems to be on the mend. The new president, Alassane Ouattara, has the backing of the international community, including a vote of confidence from the United States -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, on a visit to Abidjan in January, that Ivory Coast is now "open for business."
Tahé, nonetheless, was not happy. Gbagbo is now in The Hague in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with four counts of crimes against humanity, and Tahé and many of his fellow co-workers were furious about it. The next phase of Gbagbo's trial was due to begin June 18 but has now been postponed to Aug. 13 to give his defense team more time to prepare. Gbagbo will be the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC, which was established on July 1, 2002, and is the world's first permanent, treaty-based court. (The cases of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, were tried by international courts that were set up in conjunction with the United Nations for people accused of war crimes specifically in those countries.)
"They should leave Gbagbo in peace," Tahé said, sitting on a pile of cocoa sacks and surrounded by a dozen other men who shouted in agreement. "Alassane Ouattara started the war. Because of him our country is rotting away. He is the one that is a criminal."
Gbagbo's arrest last November was hailed by Ouattara's camp and praised by the West as an important sign that sustainable peace had returned to Ivory Coast and that the perpetrators of war crimes in the country would be brought to justice. The former leader's supporters, meanwhile, have accused Ouattara of victor's justice, pointing out that though the president has said he will pursue all war criminals, regardless of affiliation, thus far the only people detained have come from Gbagbo's side.
The ICC's chief prosecutor, as stated in an ICC news release, has accused Gbagbo of directing "murder, rape and other sexual violence, persecution and other inhuman acts, allegedly committed in the context of post-electoral violence" between mid-December 2010 and mid-April 2011. It was during these months, following his loss at the polls, that his forces unleashed a reign of terror against opponents, particularly in Abidjan and western Ivory Coast, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Human Rights Watch reported that troops and militias close to Gbagbo had murdered pro-Ouattara politicians in Abidjan, gang-raped women known to have worn pro-Ouattara T-shirts, and seized other Ouattara supporters "and then beat them to death with bricks, executed them by gunshot at point-blank range, or burned them alive."
Despite the accusations, Gbagbo remains a very popular figure in Ivory Coast (he won 45 percent of the vote in the runoff election against Ouattara, after all), and resentment regarding his arrest is widespread.
"It's not right that Gbagbo is in The Hague," said Barthelemy Gnepa, one of Tahé's co-workers at the cocoa-processing plant in San Pedro. "[Ouattara supporters] cut my grandfather's throat, right in front of me. And stuff like that is still going on. There will be no reconciliation unless Gbagbo is released and sent home. We'll never have peace."