The Hague: Men commanded by Charles Ble Goude, right hand man of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, murdered, raped and burned alive hundreds of people during a post-electoral crisis in 2010-11, the International Criminal Court heard on Monday.
The leader of the "Young Patriots", a fanatical group of Gbagbo supporters, faces four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the bloody standoff that followed a presidential poll and left 3,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.
Seeking to convince ICC judges that she has enough evidence to warrant a trial, chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that Ble Goude "bears responsibility for some of the worst crimes" committed during the showdown.
Ble Goude, 42, wore a dark suit and black-rimmed glasses and made regular notes during the hearing.
Dubbed Gbagbo`s "Street General," he persuaded his militants that using violence against supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the declared winner of the November 2010 election, was "legitimate" and "a question of survival", Bensouda said.
Each of the prosecution`s accusations was met with sighs or laughter from Ble Goude`s supporters in the ICC`s public gallery."Through his charisma and talents as a speaker, he galvanised thousands of youths," said the prosecutor`s representative, Eric MacDonald.
The youths were recruited, armed, trained and then integrated into the armed forces` chain of command, he said.
Earlier this month, the ICC confirmed that Gbagbo, who refused to concede defeat at the polls after 10 years in power, will face trial on similar charges. No date has yet been set.
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.
Gbagbo`s refusal to stand down in favour of Ouattara after the 2010 polls sparked the bloodshed, mainly in the west African country`s commercial capital Abidjan.
During the conflict, Ble Goude whipped up support for Gbagbo with fiery speeches urging mass mobilisation against what he called pro-Ouattara "rebels" and their foreign backers.
"There`s a big difference between legitimate public activism and criminal conduct," said Ble Goude`s lawyer, Nick Kaufman, calling for the charges against his client to be dropped.
The defence also said the alleged crimes and number of victims were not serious enough that the case should be brought before the ICC, the world`s first permanent court for trying top officials for war crimes and genocide.
Ble Goude will address the court at the end of the hearings on Thursday, after which judges will then have 60 days to decide on whether to proceed.
"Ble Goude in the dock should remind other senior officials who wield power in conflict that they cannot count on escaping justice," said Param-Preet Singh, senior council for international justice at Human Rights Watch.
"Victims of crimes by pro-Gbagbo forces are one step closer to learning the truth."
Ouattara is an economist and a former deputy head of the International Monetary Fund who was barred from facing Gbagbo at the polls in 2000 on the grounds of contested nationality.
He ousted his rival on the strength of his election victory 10 years later with help from France and UN forces. Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, 2011, and transferred to the ICC the following November.
Amid accusations in Ivory Coast of victor`s justice after the bloody post-election crisis, Bensouda insisted that "our investigations in the country are not over, this takes time."
"Justice will be done on all sides," she said.
The Ivorian government has consistently refused to hand over Gbagbo`s wife Simone, also wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, on the grounds that its own courts offered sufficient guarantees of a fair trial.
Gbagbo loyalists are still a force to be reckoned with in Ivorian politics and Ouattara has in recent months tried to foster reconciliation with the opposition.