The Hague: International Criminal Court judges on Monday begin hearings to decide whether Ivorian ex-president Laurent Gbagbo`s right-hand man, Charles Ble Goude, should face trial for allegedly orchestrating deadly post-election violence in 2010-11.
The leader of the so-called "Young Patriots," a fanatical group of Gbagbo supporters, is facing four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the bitter presidential standoff, which the UN said left 3,000 people dead.
A smiling Ble Goude, 42, made an initial appearance at the ICC in March, proclaiming himself innocent of charges including rape, murder and persecution.
"If I`m tried for what I did rather than for what I am, I will be proclaimed innocent," the former youth minister said, echoing accusations in Ivory Coast of a victor`s justice after the bloody post-election crisis.
He will also address the court at the end of the hearings, during which prosecutor Fatou Bensouda must convince judges that she has enough evidence to warrant a trial. Judges will then have 60 days to decide.
Earlier this month, the ICC confirmed that Gbagbo would face trial on similar charges, although no date has yet been set.
Known as Gbagbo`s "Street General", 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.
The Ivorian crisis started with Gbagbo`s refusal to concede defeat in November 2010 elections, sparking armed clashes mainly in commercial capital Abidjan that killed thousands of people.
Alassane Ouattara, now the president of the west African country, eventually ousted his rival thanks to help from France and the UN.
Ble Goude galvanised support for Gbagbo during the crisis with fiery speeches urging mass mobilisation against what he called pro-Ouattara "rebels" and their foreign backers.
"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."
The Ivorian government has continued to refuse 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.