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Amnesty criticizes Ivory Coast for biased justice

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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Ivory Coast's government is subjecting supporters of former President Laurent Gbagbo to biased legal proceedings, ill-treatment and torture, while failing to ensure their security in the country's volatile western region, according to a report released Tuesday by Amnesty International.

The 86-page report, titled "The Victor's Law," says continued abuses against Gbagbo supporters — as well as the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators — have deflated prospects for reconciliation nearly two years after a bloody postelection conflict brought the country to the brink of civil war.

"To Amnesty International's knowledge, none of the perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses described in this report have been brought to justice or even suspended from their duties," the report says. "This illustrates the failure of the Ivorian authorities to establish the rule of law nearly two years after the new authorities came to power."

Gbagbo refused to leave office after losing the November 2010 presidential runoff to current President Alassane Ouattara, sparking five months of violence that claimed at least 3,000 lives. Journalists, rights workers and the United Nations have collected ample evidence indicating that forces loyal to both men committed grave human rights abuses during the conflict, particularly in the commercial capital of Abidjan and in the west of the country.

The new report says abuses by pro-Ouattara forces have continued in earnest, prompted most recently by a wave of attacks against security installations that began last August. The U.N. has documented at least 23 such attacks throughout the country, killing 60. Ouattara's government has blamed the attacks on Gbagbo supporters within Ivory Coast and in other countries.

In response to the attacks, the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, the army created by Ouattara in March 2011, has rounded up hundreds of suspected perpetrators, holding many at unauthorized detention sites such as military camps and private villas. Many detainees have been held incommunicado without access to a lawyer, in violation of Ivory Coast's criminal procedure code. The report says detainees have been beaten with batons and iron bars, burned with melted plastic, subject to sexual abuse and plunged headfirst into barrels of water.

The Associated Press reported in October that detainees at a military camp in the southwestern port city of San Pedro had been subjected to electrical shocks, quoting witnesses who had observed the practice. Amnesty says it interviewed "more than a dozen" detainees at the San Pedro camp who claimed to have been shocked.

A master corporal at the Abidjan airbase described to Amnesty how soldiers shocked him to try to get him to confess to involvement in the attacks.

"Under orders, I undressed, I kept my boxer shorts on and I was asked to sit down and to put my hands behind my back and around an iron post," the torture survivor said. "I was handcuffed and cold water was poured over me. I was given several electric shocks, they then asked me to spread my legs and they put electricity on my penis and on my body. It is in this position that they asked me to confess."

At least two people have died as a result of torture, according to Amnesty, including a police sergeant named Serge Herve Kribie who was shocked with electricity in San Pedro. One month after Kribie's death, Ouattara awarded him the National Order of Merit, Amnesty says, apparently trying "to make believe that he was part of the soldiers and police killed in various attacks."

In addition to their alleged involvement in the attacks, detainees were asked about their past support for Gbagbo during interrogations by security forces, who seemed to imply that this support "could still constitute a recognizably criminal offense," according to the report. Many were rounded up in mass raids because they belonged to ethnic groups that generally supported Gbagbo. Some were eventually released without charge, though they often had to pay substantial ransoms.

The report bemoans the fact that no Ouattara supporters have been charged with crimes related to the postelection conflict. Some 55 Gbagbo supporters have been charged over violent crimes, according to the U.N.'s independent expert on human rights in Ivory Coast.

Impunity on Ouattara's side for past crimes is likely contributing to ongoing rights violations, as even individuals whose names are widely associated with rights abuses have not been arrested or charged, said Gaetan Mootoo, who researched the report for Amnesty.

"These people, everybody knows them," he said. "We can't say, 'Where are they?' Everybody knows them. And even some of them have been targeted by the U.N., and their names are known and they could easily be identified."

Mootoo also expressed frustration that no tangible progress had been made on the investigation of the July 2012 attack at a camp housing nearly 5,000 displaced persons in the western town of Duekoue. Witnesses and rights groups have said that soldiers and traditional hunters known as dozos, who backed Ouattara and have assumed unofficial security roles in the west, were instrumental in carrying out the attack. Officials put the death toll at eight, though many observers believe the toll was much higher.

The Amnesty report calls for the creation of an international commission of inquiry to probe the attack and its immediate aftermath. Gootoo said there was little reason to believe a government-led investigation would yield speedy and credible results.

"Of course they told us that they have opened an inquiry," he said. "But, at the same time, they have done that on other, similar cases and we haven't seen anything yet. This is why we are asking for an international commission of inquiry."

In a written response to the Amnesty report, Ivorian officials did not address specific allegations but reiterated past vows to punish members of the security forces who have broken the law. Ouattara himself has repeatedly vowed to bring all perpetrators of crimes to justice.

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