The sentencing this week of Côte d'Ivoire’s former first lady, Simone Gbagbo, to 20 years in prison, could reignite longstanding tensions in the country, where social, ethnic and religious divides have run deep for more than a decade.
Gbagbo was convicted of taking part in human rights violations, including organizing armed gangs, undermining the security of the state and disturbing public order, following the hotly disputed 2010 election that saw Alassane Ouattara unseat Laurent Gbagbo – Simone’s husband – as president.
More than 3,000 people died in the violence that followed the vote.
Laurent Gbagbo is currently in the custody of the International Criminal Court, where he faces charges of murder, rape and persecution.
“This sentencing will only deepen the rift between Ivoirians,” said Pierre Adjoumani Kouamé, president of the Ivoirian League of Human Rights. "We are quite surprised that at the moment when our head of state, Alassane Ouattara, has called for national reconciliation, such sanctions were taken against just one camp. We are not satisfied,” he told IRIN.
Kouamé explained that he believes the Ivoirian justice system has a role to play in reconciliation, but that it must do so fairly.
"At the very least, the prosecution process against pro-Ouattara supporters, for which the Ivoirian president says he is committed, must be as fast, in order to avoid the sense of there being unequal justice in the country," Kouamé said.
Local political analyst Alain Arsène Touré agreed.
“We had a trial in which the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses were weak,” he said. “This gives a sense of unfinished business and will be remembered by many people as a trial against a single camp. Obviously it will not be part of the reconciliation procession and…could even revive tensions.”
Heavy penalties, bad sign
While both camps have been accused of abuses, prosecutions have focused on Gbagbo’s supporters. Since December, 83 of them have been on trial for alleged crimes committed after the 2010 election.
Besides Simone Gbagbo, two prominent generals and former members of her husband’s presidential security detail, Bruno Dogbo Ble and Vagba Faussinganux, were each sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Michel Gbagbo, the son of Laurent Gbagbo, was sentenced to five years in prison, and Aboudrahamane Sangare, a close ally of Gbagbo, was penalized 10 years in prison.
"These sentences are very heavy,” said Pascal Affi N'Guessan, president of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI), the leading social democratic political party. “It's a bad sign that does not help with the healing of hearts.”
Other pro-Gbagbo supporters and former ministers, such as Desire Dallo, Bono Claverie and Alcide Djedje, were given two-year suspended sentences.
"As long as the feeling of unilateral [one-sided] justice exists, there will always be an abuse of power,” Touré said.
Deserved punishment for some
But not all people are unhappy with the outcome of the trial.
Many have even expressed relief at the sentence imposed on Gbagbo, who is known by many as the “Iron Lady” because of her “fiery” speeches.
"I am relieved that Simone Gbagbo has been convicted,” said Abidjan resident Moussa Camara. “She was fully responsible for [what happened during] this post-election war, as was her husband. It is their fault that we Ivoirians lost our loved ones.”
Camara claimed that three of his children, aged 23, 20 and 17, were killed by pro-Gbagbo militia forces in February 2011, in a commune just north of Abidjan.
"We are now ready to forgive our tormentors, but they must also think about compensating us," he added.
Fatou Sylla, a 36-year-old widow from Yopougon, just west of Abidjan, said the sentencing has helped heal some of the emotional wounds she suffered after her husband died during post-election violence.
"Simone deserves this punishment,” she said. “Her remarks have divided Ivoirians for a long time. Today the courts have issued their judgment and I am satisfied. I will now make peace with my enemies of yesterday.”
Joel N’Guessan, a spokesman for the ruling Rally of Republicans party, said: “The most important thing is that justice has been given in favor of the victims and that will help them move forward without forgetting what happened. This decision brings solace to the hearts of the victims and their families, and is part of the fight against impunity, which is key to progress,” he said.
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