Ivorian ex-president Laurent Gbagbo bears responsibility for some of the worst crimes committed during a bloody post-election standoff in the west African nation two years ago, the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor said on Tuesday.
"We will show that Mr Gbagbo and forces under his control are responsible for the death, rapes, serious injuries to, and arbitrary detention of countless law abiding citizens," Fatou Bensouda told judges at the Hague-based ICC.
Gbagbo, 67, faced a first day of hearings after which the ICC's judges will decide whether there is enough evidence to try him for masterminding post-vote violence between late-November 2010 and mid-May 2011, which the UN said claimed some 3,000 lives.
"For these brutal, revolting acts, the prosecution charges Mr Gbagbo with crimes against humanity and we will request the Chamber to commit Mr Gbagbo to trial for these crimes," Bensouda said.
Presiding judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi opened the confirmation of charges hearing while Gbagbo, the first former head of state before the court, greeted journalists and supporters in the gallery with a wave.
Wearing a dark blue suit and a light blue tie, the former strongman sat in court in apparently good health. He listened intently as the charges were read, with his hands folded in front of him.
The court has given Gbagbo the option of following proceedings via video link because he has an unspecified health problem and is also holding shorter sessions for that reason.
Gbagbo's lawyer Dov Jacobs argued that the case should be tried in the Ivory Coast, noting that "before anything else, he is a man who is presumed innocent."
He faces four counts of crimes against humanity for fomenting a wave of violence which swept the Ivory Coast after he refused to concede defeat in November 2010 presidential polls.
He has denied the charges against him.
Bensouda called Gbagbo "a president who abandoned the political, electoral, democratic process, preferring to resort to violence and crime to stay in power."
"In the space of just a few days, Ivory Coast went from being a country where ordinary law-abiding citizens went en masse to the polls to elect their president to a theatre of extreme violence that plunged the country once again into chaos and divided its citizens," she said.
Almost five months of fighting followed, ravaging the world's largest cocoa producer and leaving thousands dead, many of them perceived supporters of election winner and current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara.
In a sign tensions are still high in the West African nation, around 400 Gbagbo loyalists staged a protest in front of the The Hague-based ICC on Tuesday, calling for their leader to be freed.
On Saturday, riot police in Ivory Coast fired tear gas to disperse another pro-Gbagbo demonstration outside the commercial capital Abidjan.
In The Hague, prosecutors and the defence are to spend just over a week arguing their cases before a three-judge bench, who will then decide if there are "substantial grounds to believe that Gbagbo committed the crimes" and should be charged.
The prosecution says Gbagbo masterminded a plan to "stay in power by all means... through carefully planned, sustained and deadly attacks" against Ouattara supporters.
Between November 28, 2010 and May 8, 2011 Gbagbo's forces killed between 706 and 1,059 people and raped more than 35 women, prosecutors say.
In one instance, some 80 people were massacred when perceived Ouattara supporters were attacked in the northwestern Abidjan suburb of Yopougon a day after Gbagbo's arrest, prosecutors said.
His supporters in turn have accused Ouattara's camp of practising "victor's justice" as many of the former president's backers are now behind bars -- including Gbagbo's wife Simone, who is also wanted by the ICC -- while none of those close to the Ouattara regime have been arrested despite accusations of rights abuses.
"Holding Gbagbo to account is a critical step for victims in Ivory Coast," Human Rights Watch's senior international justice counsel Param-Preet Singh said in a statement.
"But the slow pace of investigations against pro-Ouattara forces feeds the perception that the ICC is going along with victor’s justice."
Gbagbo, a former historian-turned-politician, was finally arrested on April 11, 2011, when Ouattara's forces with French and UN backing overran his heavily fortified compound in the southern economic capital after days of heavy fighting.
He was taken to the northern Ivorian town of Korhogo, where he spent almost eight months under house arrest before being transferred to the ICC's detention unit in November 2011.
The hearings starting Tuesday are to last over a week, with Gbagbo expected to speak on the final day, February 28.