This week, 24 suspects were temporarily released after being detained for more than two years. President Alassane Ouattara had instructed the justice minister to grant freedom to some of the suspects in a bid to shore up reconciliation efforts. About a dozen other detainees were freed provisionally between November 2011 and August 2013.
The majority of those on trial for murder, economic crimes, kidnapping and other serious offences are former senior army officers and top politicians close to deposed president Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara’s government has been repeatedly accused of carrying out partial justice. Just a handful of his supporters have been accused of crimes while more than 150 Gbagbo loyalists have been charged, an issue that continues to stoke tensions between the two sides.
The Special Investigations Unit, tasked with probing the post-election conflict in which at least 3,000 people died, had accused supporters of both Gbagbo and Ouattara of crimes. The government, under pressure from rights groups, on 8 January renewed the mandate of the investigations panel, which was set up in 2011. It had wound up its activities and disbanded in October 2013.
“We feel that it’s become clear that politicians, in the name of national reconciliation, want to ignore the terrible legacy of the crimes committed in 2010 and 2011,” said Yacouba Doumbia, the head of the Ivoirian Human Rights Movement (MIDH).
“Reconciliation without justice would be delusional, and Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history bears testimony to politicians’ attempts at reconciliation through amnesty laws that compromise justice,” Doumbia told IRIN. “The post-election crisis was very brutal and deadly. There’s an absolute need for some justice at the very least.”
In the course of a decade-long crisis that started in 1999, Côte d’Ivoire passed two sets of amnesty laws to pardon alleged crimes by rebel groups and armed forces and to foster reconciliation.
In his New Year's message, Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said that not everyone targeted by an arrest warrant will be tried.
“Those who are returning [from exile] and want to take part in politics should play by the rules. It is true that we issued arrested warrants against some people, but they will not be arrested when they return to the country," he said.
“The government has taken an irreversible committed to ease tensions,” Bakayoko added.
Former communications minister under Gbago’s government, Ouattara Gnonzié, his ex-defence counterpart Alain Dogou and former port authority chief Marcel Gossio - all of them facing arrest warrants - have recently returned from exile without being taken into custody.
The government crackdown after the election conflict and the arrest of suspects following a spate of attacks in 2011 and 2012 drew condemnation by rights groups and allegations of abuses committed by the security forces.
“Ivoirians, notably President Ouattara, are facing a dilemma about how to handle the need for justice and the necessity for reconciliation,” said Abidjan-based political analyst Bertrand Kouamé. “The more time passes, the more we realize how sluggish the justice system is in establishing the truth. Political interests are becoming more important.”
Kouamé argued that the government cannot fight impunity while taking measures that undermine the justice system.
“It is up to the Special Investigations Unit to move things on. It has to be reinforced with prosecutorial powers. Whether a suspect is a Gbagbo or Ouattara supporter, the Unit should not dither. This can also help relieve judges and accelerate trials,” Kouamé said.
With the next presidential elections less than one year away, politicians are keen to spare their supporters trials to avoid antagonizing them, said MIDH’s Doumbia. The 2015 elections will likely test the country’s stability as it slowly emerges from the devastation of the last polls. Analysts note that Côte d’Ivoire’s reconciliation bid and disarmament programme have achieved little.
“The work of the judiciary should in no way depend on the electoral cycle. The truth must be sought and justice done to victims even when an unstable political environment impacts on the trials and the independence of judges remains questionable,” said Doumbia.
“Whether to pursue justice or reconciliation in Côte d’Ivoire is not an issue for us when everybody believes in one-sided justice,” said Pascal Affi N’guessan, the head of Gbagbo’s Ivoirian Patriotic Front party. “This type of justice cannot bring about reconciliation, so all the prisoners should simply be released. This would be a show of responsibility and maturity.”
However, Joël N’guessan, spokesman of the ruling Rally of the Republicans party, said that justice would be better served alongside reconciliation, especially for the victims of the violence.
“NGOs and other experts want the trials speeded up… But as long as the victims are not the priority and accorded restorative justice, the desire for revenge will remain high. We cannot allow ourselves to skip this important step for true reconciliation of Ivoirians,” he said.
Yet for some of the victims, justice is the priority.
“It’s only after justice has been delivered that we can talk of reconciliation. Justice must be the basis of true reconciliation. We therefore refuse that political manoeuvres should forever sink our desire for justice for the crimes committed,” said Sanogo Mamadou, the head of the Association of Victims of Gbagbo’s Barbarism.