Murder trial over 'Novotel captives' opens in I. Coast
The trial opened Tuesday in Ivory Coast of 10 men, mainly soldiers, accused of kidnapping and killing four men from the Novotel hotel in Abidjan in April 2011.
"All the defendants are present," the presiding judge Mourlaye Cissoko announced. "They all have a lawyer."
The case is expected to shed light on the abduction and murder of the hotel's manager, along with the head of Ivory Coast's largest agro-industrial group and two other businessmen in an unexplained crime, while bloodshed raged in Abidjan between rival political factions.
The defendants include General Brunot Dogbo Ble, who was commander of the Republican Guard in the service of Laurent Gbagbo, a former president who refused to step down after losing a November 2010 election to Alassane Ouattara and who clung to power by force.
Gbagbo is himself on trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity during more than four months of conflict in Abidjan that claimed about 3,000 lives.
At night on April 4, 2011, armed men burst into the Novotel hotel in a part of the economic capital under the control of Gbagbo's forces and snatched the French manager, Stephane Frantz di Rippel.
They also kidnapped Yves Lambelin, the French chairman of Ivory Coast's largest private firm, Sifca, his Beninese assistant Raoul Adeossi and a Malaysian, Chelliah Pandian, who ran a Sifca subsidiary, Sania.
According to the new Ouattara regime, which was installed once Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, the hit squad took their victims to the presidential palace, where they were tortured and eventually killed.
Two corpses were found at the end of May in Abidjan's lagoon, but the only body that could be formally identified was Lambelin's.
Five of the men facing trial, including Dogbo Ble, are charged with abduction and murder, while the others are accused of kidnapping and/or making the bodies disappear, supposedly in black plastic bags used to cover bananas.
The trial was meant to start last November, but put off at the last moment until January 31, when it was again postponed because half of the accused were not in court.
The delay aroused anger from defence lawyers and civil parties in the case, who want to find out why the victims died and how far up the chain of command the order was issued.