ABIDJAN (Ivory Coast) • To some of his countrymen, Laurent Gbagbo is nothing more than an executioner who oversaw the killings and rapes of dozens of people. To others, he has become a martyr and a hero who deserves freedom.
The former president of Cote d' Ivoire has denied all charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the start of his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
His case is an important challenge for the ICC - the 70-year-old Gbagbo is the first former president to reach trial at the tribunal, which has been in operation for a decade with a mandate to deal with war crimes and genocide.
President from 2000 to 2011, he stands trial with 43-year-old Charles Ble Goude, one of his militia leaders, for crimes allegedly committed against supporters of Mr Alassane Ouattara, current President of Cote d' Ivoire, in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election.
Gbagbo was narrowly defeated in a runoff, but he insisted that he had won and refused to cede power, leading to months of turmoil and the deaths of more than 3,000 people before his arrest in April 2011.
The case is a reminder of the huge gulf that still exists between supporters of President Ouattara, who won re-election by a huge majority in a largely peaceful election last year, and those who remain loyal to Gbagbo.
These days, Ivory Coast is bustling. Abidjan, the principal city, swirls with traffic, construction sites are everywhere and swarms of children in checkered school uniforms crisscross the streets. Mr Ouattara's government has invested in new roads and bridges, and the economy has been growing briskly.
But the city still bears the scars of the violence from 2010 and 2011. In the Abobo neighbourhood, where pro-Gbagbo militias are said to have tortured, raped and killed people because of their origins or political affiliations, Mr Souleymane Gramboute pointed out bullet holes in pockmarked walls, and dark markings on the road pavement.
"That's where they burned people alive," he said. He said his two brothers had been killed in the upheaval and that his neighbour from Mali had been shot in his bed, memories that are still vivid for him.
"That's why we need this trial," he said. "We need justice; it's a form of closure."
The trial started on Thursday with the reading of the charges. After Judge Cuno Tarfusser asked Gbagbo, who was supported by hundreds of followers outside the court building, if he pleaded guilty or not guilty, Gbagbo maintained, as expected, his innocence.
"Thank you Mr President, I plead not guilty," he said.
The same question was put to Ble Goude, who gave the same answer. "Thank you Mr President, I do not recognise the charges and therefore I plead not guilty," Ble Goude stated.
Chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in her opening statement that she was convinced that the evidence will prove that the accused were guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
"It's the trial of all hopes," said Mr Kone Boubakar, secretary-general of one of the current divisions of the Ivorian Popular Front, the political party Gbagbo founded.
"This kind of trial can last for years, so we have many chances for the truth to come out," he added. "The real question is, 'When will the other bad guys be judged?'"
Outside Camp Commando, a former headquarters for Gbagbo's militia, a woman said she still lived in the house where three militiamen stormed in and raped her in front of her children in 2011.
"They came in with big guns and balaclavas," said the woman, who spoke on condition that her name not be published. She had campaigned for Mr Ouattara, she said, and "they must have known".
NEW YORK TIMES, XINHUA