By Mark John
DAKAR (Reuters) - Fatou Bensouda, the first African to be named as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has little time for accusations that the Hague-based court has harbored bias against Africa during its nine-year history.
The fact that all 14 of the court's current cases are from Africa is not evidence the ICC is unfairly targeting people on the continent, but on the contrary, proves it is working hard to protect them from their persecutors, she argues.
"All of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims. They are not from another continent. And they're the ones who are suffering these crimes," the 50-year-old Gambian lawyer told Reuters in an interview in Ivory Coast this year.
"Any time I hear this about the ICC targeting Africa ... it saddens me, especially as an African woman," she said.
Whether or not Bensouda, who was officially confirmed as the successor to Argentina's Luis Moreno-Ocampo by ICC member states on Monday, can change critic's minds remains to be seen.
But her African background may make it harder for accusations of ICC prejudice against Africa to stick, something likely to have swayed the 120-nation Assembly of States Parties to the ICC in her favor.
A holder of a masters degree in international maritime law, Bensouda made her name as the top expert on the law of the sea in the tiny West African coast state of Gambia before venturing into more political arenas.
She helped negotiate rules for the 15-country Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and rose through the ranks of the Gambian judiciary in 2000 to become justice minister and chief legal adviser to President Yahya Jammeh.
But the post lasted only a few months as she shared the same fate as a dozen justice ministers before her who also fell foul of Jammeh, a former military coup leader who has publicly declared his 17-year rule to be divinely ordained.
After a spell as the head of a Gambian bank, Bensouda worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda before being elected Deputy Prosecutor of the ICC in 2004. There she has headed the prosecutions division, central to the process of deciding which crimes and individuals to target.
During her time, ICC judges have issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and other leaders of Uganda's Lords Resistance Army wanted on alleged crimes such as sexual slavery and murder, and former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, now being held on trial for alleged crimes committed by his soldiers.
It was she who warned fighters in this year's Ivory Coast conflict that the court would investigate all war crimes regardless of who committed them, and would protect no one.
After his night-time transfer from northern Ivory Coast to The Hague last month, ousted former President Laurent Gbagbo made his first appearance before the court last week to face charges of crimes against humanity.
His supporters accuse the ICC of victor's justice and insist backers of president Alassane Ouattara also face prosecution.
Regardless of how her appointment shapes the court and perceptions of it, it will make many Africans proud.
"The appointment of my sister is a big achievement for Gambia," Bensouda's elder sister told Reuters in Gambia. "Although it is a very small country it shows it can be where other countries are."
(Additional reporting by Pap Saine in Banjul; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Alistair Lyon)