THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Hundreds of supporters of former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo protested outside the International Criminal Court on Tuesday as he appeared for a hearing on whether he should face trial for crimes against humanity.
Gbagbo is accused of plunging his country into civil war after 2010 elections rather than relinquishing his grip on power. He is the only ex-head of state to appear in the Court, whose credibility is at stake after a string of collapsed cases.
Underlining the tensions which still plague the West African country, Dutch police on horseback held back some 300 Ivorian supporters protesting outside the court building to demand that the charges that he directed mass killings and rape be dropped.
"He's not a dictator," said one supporter who called himself Babadwe. "Gbagbo loves his people and his people love him. Have you ever heard of a president who kills his people and then have his people love him?"
His lawyers accuse the court of political bias in favour of his successor, Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF official who has sought to kickstart the economy of the world's top cocoa grower and of the country that was once West Africa's commercial hub.
Gbagbo, a 67-year-old former history professor, was dressed in a sober business suit. He was alert but largely expressionless as he watched proceedings from a seat at the back of the court and is not due to speak until late next week.
The sessions have been spread over several days to take account of his health, which his lawyers say was weakened by months of detention in Ivory Coast before his transfer to the Hague court in November 2011.
Ouattara's government said it would have been impossible to have held a fair trial of Gbagbo in Ivory Coast and feared it could have triggered fresh bouts of violence, an argument which Gbagbo's lawyers reject.
"If the chamber declares this case admissible there would be a risk of saying this will be a court of convenience, pliant to the will of local leaders as it is today with Ivory Coast," said Dov Jacobs, a lawyer for Gbagbo.
The hearing is crucial for the Court's own prosecutors, who will seek to convince judges that Gbagbo has a case to answer after a string of high-profile failures.
They must prove that Gbagbo ordered his forces to commit murders, rapes and other human rights during violence in which some 3,000 people died in a four-month civil war that uprooted a million people from their homes.
Late last year Congolese warlord Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui was acquitted in the court's second ever verdict, and prosecutors have failed to make charges stick against four other African suspects.
Gbagbo says he was leading government resistance against what he describes as Ouattara's foreign-backed northern rebellion. Ouattara saw himself as the champion of excluded northerners who suffered under Gbagbo's southern government.
The conflict came to an end only after Gbagbo was arrested by forces loyal to Ouattara, with the help of French troops, prompting Gbagbo's supporters to argue that he is the victim of post-colonial meddling.
Prosecutors have also issued an arrest warrant for Gbagbo's wife Simone, but Ivory Coast has not surrendered her to the ICC's custody.
A close Gbagbo ally, the leader of the Young Patriots youth movement Charles Ble Goude, was arrested last month in Ghana and was immediately extradited to face trial in Ivory Coast.
Gbagbo supporters and human rights groups have complained that abuses carry out by pro-Ouattara forces during the conflict have yet to be punished, arguing that this is holding back efforts to reconcile southerners and northerners.
Many Ivorians want to draw a line over the whole conflict.
"I think that the youth need to understand that Gbagbo has had his day and it's over now," said Norbert Toualy, a pensioner in the commercial capital Abidjan. "He can come back after his trial, but he's no longer going to be president."
Additional reporting by Ange Aboa and Joe Bavier in Abidjan and Mark John in the Hague; editing by Mark John