ICC puts off Gbagbo hearing over health fears

The International Criminal Court (ICC) said Friday it had postponed an August 13 hearing for former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo after defence lawyers questioned his fitness to stand trial.

Doctors could examine Gbagbo, 67, who faces charges of crimes against humanity, to determine if "he is fit to take part in the proceedings against him," the court said.

At the request of defence lawyers they had appointed three doctors to assess Gbagbo, who had filed confidential medical reports last month, a statement from the court said.

The court was now awaiting the response of both the prosecution and the defence lawyers. The Ivorian former leader has been detained at the seat of the ICC in The Hague since November last year.

In a decision taken on Thursday, the pre-trial chamber "ordered the prosecutor and the defence to submit their observations on (medical) reports, respectively, by 13 and 21 August," the statement said.

"In light of the importance of the issue, the Chamber decided to postpone the confirmation of charges hearing until such issue is resolved," added the statement.

Gbagbo faces four counts of crimes against humanity -- murder, persecution, rape and other sexual violence, and other inhumane acts -- stemming from violence after he lost presidential elections in Ivory Coast in November 2010.

The former president, who first came to power in October 2000, refused to acknowledge an election loss to long-standing rival Alassane Ouattara, a decision that plunged the country into its second armed conflict in a decade.

Holed up in the commercial capital Abidjan, Gbagbo was eventually ousted in April 2011, following two weeks of fierce street fighting that is estimated to have cost 3,000 lives in the west African country.

On April 11 last year, the captured Gbagbo was moved to Korhogo in the north of the country, until he was transferred to ICC custody seven months later on the strength of an international arrest warrant.

Defence counsel have repeatedly claimed that Gbagbo was "tortured" during his detention in Korhogo and say he needs to recover physically and psychologically.

Gbagbo clung to power after a failed coup against him in 2002, which led to the division of the cocoa-rich country into a rebel-held north and a south controlled by loyalist troops.

Despite a series of peace accords underwritten by the United Nations, he repeatedly put off the elections.

The ICC prosecutor is also investigating crimes that may have been committed by former rebels loyal to Ouattara.

The current president, a northerner, was able to take office after decisive military support from the UN operation in Ivory Coast and a French military force stationed there, known as Unicorn.

But rights activists say the former rebels are heavily implicated in killings that claimed hundreds of lives in west Ivory Coast at the end of March 2011, before their offensive on Gbagbo's stronghold in Abidjan.

The ICC last month rejected a defence request that the former president be released pending his trial, saying he posed too much of a flight risk.

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