Abidjan - The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Ivory Coast's former first lady Simone Gbagbo, accusing her of crimes against humanity committed during the West African nation's post-election conflict last year.
The warrant, which was issued on February 29 but remained sealed until Thursday, alleges she was “criminally responsible for murder, rape, other forms of sexual violence, other inhumane acts, and persecution”.
A copy of the warrant was seen by Reuters.
Rights groups said risks deepening the widespread perception of winner's justice as no forces loyal to the current government have been arrested despite evidence of crimes being committed on both sides. Reconciliation efforts have lagged as a result.
Former President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to accept defeat in a late 2010 election triggered the brief war, is already in The Hague awaiting trial on similar charges.
Violent street protests slipped into all-out combat between soldiers and militias loyal to Gbagbo and fighters supporting current President Alassane Ouattara, who received the backing of United Nations and French troops.
More than 3 000 people died in the conflict.
The warrant accuses Simone Gbagbo, who is currently in custody in Ivory Coast, of participating in the planning and orchestration of the violence.
“Simone Gbagbo was ideologically and professionally very close to her husband... Although unelected, she behaved as the alter ego of her husband, exercising power and taking state decision,” the warrant said.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the pro-Gbagbo forces who executed the common plan, did so in obeying in an almost automatic way orders received from Simone Gbagbo,” it read.
Ivory Coast is not party to the Rome Statue, the treaty which founded the court, but it granted the ICC jurisdiction for crimes committed during the post-election violence.
The government did not immediately say whether it planned to extradite Simone Gbagbo, who was arrested along with her husband in April 2011 as fighting came to an end and is currently being held under house arrest in the northwestern city of Odienne.
She is due to be tried in Ivory Coast on genocide charges.
“We've just been informed of this. We will now examine the situation and take a decision,” government spokesman Bruno Kone told Reuters.
Authorities arrested around 100 pro-Gbagbo fighters and political figures last year, and have been accused of illegal detentions and abuse targeting his suspected supporters in recent months.
None of Ouattara's own supporters have yet been arrested for crimes during the post-election violence, though rights groups say there is evidence they too committed atrocities.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC's former prosecutor, said earlier this year he was extending investigations back to 2002, when a failed coup ignited Ivory Coast's decade-long crisis and would look into crimes committed by both camps.
Rights campaigner Human Rights Watch on Thursday welcomed the ICC's decision to indict Simone Gbagbo, but said it must be followed up with action against Ouattara's own supporters.
“The continued one-sided justice domestically and at the ICC ignores many of the conflict's victims and threatens to further divide the country,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The ICC's prosecutor said more arrest warrants might come.
“The Office of the Prosecutor is continuing its investigations of all crimes allegedly committed by all sides,” said Fatou Bensouda.
“Additional requests for arrest warrants will be submitted to the judges once we have collected enough evidence to substantiate the allegations,” she said. - Reuters