Ivorian former first lady questions charges over post-poll unrest

Abidjan (AFP) - Ivory Coast's former first lady Simone Gbagbo on Monday questioned the charges against her as she testified in court for the first time on charges of undermining state security.

"I don't know exactly what the concrete actions are that I am being accused of," Gbagbo said, insisting also that her husband Laurent Gbagbo was the legitimate winner of a 2010 presidential election that sparked five months of violence that claimed some 3,000 lives.

Ahead of her appearance, police moved to separate supporters and opponents of the Gbagbos as scuffles broke out outside the courtroom.

To shouts of "Murderers!" from opponents referring to the post-electoral bloodshed, supporters shouted back "Liars!"

Simone Gbagbo, 65, and 82 fellow defendants are accused of playing roles in violence that broke out in Abidjan when Laurent Gbagbo refused to admit defeat in the December 2010 election.

The former president himself is in The Hague awaiting trial in July for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

The defeated regime allegedly used brutal militias to attack supporters of the declared winner of the poll, Alassane Ouattara, but some of his backers are equally accused of atrocities in violence that killed thousands.

That violence was eventually halted with the intervention of forces under a UN mandate including former colonial power France -- a detail Simone suggested helped cover the neo-imperial designs of then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"What business was this of President Sarkozy?", she asked, accusing French forces of "bombing the presidential residence during ten days when there was no UN resolution giving it that authority."

She also placed blame for post-electoral carnage on forces loyal to Ouattara and members of his current government, claiming their militias, "backed by the UN and French forces, massacred civil populations and humiliated representatives of the state."

The Gbagbo couple were arrested in April 2011, when Simone was taken into custody in the north of the west African country, where she testified she was "beaten with incredible violence."

Her husband was seized in Abidjan, and eventually turned over to the ICC.

- 'Ask forgiveness' -

The Ivorian judiciary has ignored calls for Simone Gbagbo to be transferred to The Hague as well, insisting that the onetime "Iron Lady" and other key players should be tried in their homeland.

"We are here for justice to be done," Fanta Soumahoro, a woman who described herself as the niece of a victim, told AFP outside the court.

"We expect (Simone Gbagbo) to ask for forgiveness. We refuse to believe that she did nothing."

"Simone Gbagbo did nothing!" exclaimed a nearby man who called himself "Ble Goude Junior", after the ex-leader of the extremist Young Patriot movement that long supported Gbagbo. "She was the first lady. She wasn't a soldier. She shouldn't be here."

For almost a month, a succession of politicians, journalists and other Gbagbo supporters have been questioned before the court, including a former prime minister and seven other ex-ministers.

But when journalists were accused of incitement to hatred, no press articles, broadcast recordings or video items were brought forward to back the prosecution claims.

Like the defendants, the political opposition and representatives of civil society have denounced bias and "victor's justice" in the trial -- a theme Simone Gbagbo echoed in court.

"How can I be tried on the basis of a political decision, when I respected the decision of the constitutional council," she asked, referring to the Ivorian body that ruled her husband the victor of the election that other national bodies and international observers said Ouattara won.

No one close to Ouattara has been investigated or prosecuted in connection with the violence that rocked the commercial capital for five months, but his supporters are widely believed to have committed atrocities.

"This trial should have taken place at the ICC," where Charles Ble Goude also faces trial, said an elegantly dressed man in his 50s.

"A racket at the Abidjan courthouse does not paint a good picture" of Ivory Coast, he said.