International Criminal Court judges have expanded an investigation in Ivory Coast to cover atrocities dating back to 2002 and committed against a backdrop of political turmoil in the West African nation, the court announced Thursday.
The written decision dramatically stretches the scope of the probe originally launched into violence that erupted after presidential elections late in 2010 and left at least 3,000 people dead.
Former President Laurent Gbagbo was sent to the court last year to face charges of murder, rape and other crimes allegedly committed by his supporters as he clung to power after last year's elections.
Rights groups have long called for the court's prosecutor to look at earlier violence triggered by a political power struggle in Ivory Coast stemming from an attempted coup in 2002.
Gbagbo was elected president in disputed 2000 elections and clung to power after the coup two years later which effectively split Ivory Coast in half, with rebels controlling the north and Gbagbo forces the south. Both rebels and pro-Gbagbo forces have been accused of atrocities.
Gbagbo repeatedly delayed elections due in 2005 and then when the poll was finally held in 2010, refused to concede defeat after losing to current President Alassane Ouattara. That sparked yet more violence in a nation once considered a beacon of stability in West Africa.
The expanded investigation is a chance to end a "decade of impunity" in Ivory Coast, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
"None of the grave crimes committed between 2002 and 2010 have ever been effectively prosecuted," the statement said. "The ICC prosecutor should now move quickly with investigations into crimes committed by all sides, ensuring impartial justice for the horrors that Ivorians have suffered."
In a written decision, judges concluded that although political violence climaxed in late 2010 and into 2011, "it appears that this was a continuation of the ongoing political crisis and the culmination of a long power struggle" in the country.
The judges said that based on evidence presented by prosecutors, "acts of murder and rape that could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity were committed."
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