June 21, 2011 / 10:49 PM / 7 years ago

Corruption probe for I.Coast's Gbagbo may last 2 years

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Investigating alleged corruption by Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo, and his associates may take up to two years, although an initial inquiry is finished, the justice minister said on Tuesday.

An election billboard showing ousted former president Laurent Gbagbo in Abidjan April 14, 2011. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Ivorian authorities are investigating allegations of serious abuses committed during a post-election power struggle between Gbagbo and current President Alassane Ouattara.

They are also probing allegations he and those close to him stole vast amounts from the treasury and the cocoa regulatory body, Justice Minister Jeannot Ahoussou Kouadio told a news conference in Ivory Coast’s main commercial city Abidjan.

Switzerland opened a money-laundering case against Gbagbo’s associates last month, freezing 70 million Swiss francs ($80 million), after a complaint by Ouattara’s government.

“The preliminary inquiry on economic crimes has been completed by the police,” Kouadio said, but he added: “This inquiry into the economic case could take one year, two years.”

Gbagbo, his wife Simone and senior officials in his government have been detained by Ivorian authorities since pro-Ouattara forces backed by the French military seized him from his bunker on April 11, ending a violent power struggle between them since a disputed November election.

Rights groups say no one imprisoned has faced trial yet and have urged his authorities to press charges or release them.

One of the economic charges is that Gbagbo’s troops looted the local branch of West Africa’s central bank in January, when they seized it after the bank him cut off from state accounts.

Ouattara has also asked the International Criminal Court to probe allegations of serious human rights crimes, and the prosecutor last week gave witnesses until July 17 to come forward with evidence implicating either side of the conflict.

Ivorian authorities were also investigating allegations Gbagbo or an aide ordered an attack on April 4 on the Abidjan Novotel, in which his militiamen kidnapped four people, including its French hotel manager and another French citizen SIFCA president Yves Lambert, and tortured them to death.

Much of the foreign press corps, which was a target for Gbagbo’s militias, was lodging there and hotel staff said they took the men when they failed to find the Western journalists.

“When they were kidnapped, Mr Gbagbo was in power. Where did they take them? The presidential palace. They were tortured to death in the palace. We have militiamen who witnessed this,” Kouadio said. “The bodies were then wrapped in plastic and chucked in the lagoon.”

One person who escaped Ouattara’s forces to neighbouring Ghana is Gbagbo’s youth leader, Charles Ble Goude, accused of inciting hatred against foreign nationals and U.N. staff. Rights groups documented several cases of killings of West Africans and members of Ouattara’s Dioula tribe by Goude’s youth militiamen.

“The extradition of Charles Ble Goude will happen. He thinks he can hide, but we’ll pursue him,” Kouadio said.

Rights groups also point out that Ouattara’s men, also accused of grave crimes, have yet to be arrested.

Kouadio said no one would escape justice.

“Regardless of your social status, justice applies to you.”

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