The Hague (AFP) - The International Criminal Court on Thursday ordered a close ally of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, Charles Ble Goude, to stand trial for crimes against humanity linked to a 2010-11 post-election crisis.
The decision comes a week after the Hague-based court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda dropped charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, and is seen as a minor victory to boost the prosecution's flagging fortunes.
"The Pre-Trial Chamber confirmed four charges of crimes against humanity against Charles Ble Goude and committed him to trial," an ICC three-judge bench said in a statement.
Goude, 42, faces four counts including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts for his role in a bloody stand-off that followed a presidential poll in the west African country leaving 3,000 dead, according to the United Nations.
The crisis was sparked after long-time Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to concede defeat at the polls against rival Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo himself is to go on trial before the ICC on similar charges in July next year.
- 'Criminally responsable' -
As the leader of the "Young Patriots", a fanatical group of Gbagbo supporters, Goude "bears responsibility for some of the worst crimes" committed during the showdown, prosecutors have said.
During the conflict, Ble Goude -- dubbed Gbagbo's "Street General" -- whipped up support for Gbagbo with fiery speeches urging mass mobilisation against what he called pro-Ouattara "rebels" and their foreign backers.
Prosecutors said Goude commanded men that murdered and raped and burned alive hundreds of people during the post-election violence that ended only after Gbagbo's arrest following an assault on his fortress-like Abidjan compound by Ouattara's forces, backed by France and the United Nations.
The ICC judges said on Thursday: "In the light of the evidence... the Pre-Trial Chamber concluded that there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Charles Ble Goude is individually criminally responsible for crimes against humanity."
- 'Surprise' -
During a pre-trial hearing in October, Goude told judges he was a believer in non-violence who did "everything to bring Ivorians together."
He denied that there was ever a joint plan to attack Ouattara's supporters.
His lawyer Nick Kaufman said on Thursday that Goude was "surprised" by the decision to put him on trial, which "confirms a politically-motivated and selective investigation."
Gbagbo's supporters have long accused the Ouattara government of practising a "victor's justice" as many of the former president's backers were thrown behind bars including Gbagbo's wife Simone, who remains in prison in the Ivory Coast.
The ICC on Thursday rejected an Ivorian request to have her tried at home, saying she should be handed over to stand trial in The Hague.
The Ivorian government said it would respond in due time.
"The government will take some time to analyse the situation and come back with a clear position," spokesman Bruno Kone said at a press conference.
Rights groups have in the past warned that a prosecution focused only on crimes committed by the Gbagbo camp would lead to an "explosive situation" on the ground.
ICC chief prosecutor Bensouda however has promised that "justice will be done on all sides."
Ble Goude was arrested in Ghana in January 2013 and extradited to the Ivory Coast, but authorities had been hesitant to send him to the world's only permanent war crimes court.
Last week Bensouda dropped crimes against humanity charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, seen as a massive blow to the court and its prosecutors, which has in the past been accused of only targeting African leaders.
Gbagbo himself in the past has accused France of orchestrating his arrest, with his supporters at the time branding his arrest a "political kidnapping."