Ivory Coast’s “Iron Lady” Simone Gbagbo basked in her role as the power behind the throne during her husband’s regime, but to foes she was a pitiless killer.
Fervently Christian but ruthless by reputation, she never sought to deny exercising political influence after her husband Laurent Gbagbo rose to power in 2000 elections.
“All the ministers respect me, and they often consider me above them. I’ve got what it takes to be a minister,” she told the French newsweekly l’Express in 2001, justifying her stance after a life she said had been dedicated to activism.
“I engaged in political struggle against the former regime alongside men. I spent six months in prison, I was beaten, molested, left for dead. After all those trials, it’s logical that people don’t mess with me.”
She was released from prison on Wednesday in an amnesty, three years into a 20-year sentence for “endangering state security” for her role in political violence that claimed some 3 000 lives after her husband lost a bitter 2010 presidential election.
The couple were arrested in April 2011 by forces loyal to President Alassane Ouatarra during a French-backed military operation, after five months of fighting.
She was accused of actively supporting Laurent Gbagbo in his bid to keep power, the culmination of a turbulent decade in office.
He has been in detention at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for seven years.
Born in the predominantly Christian south in 1949 as one of 18 children of a policeman, she studied linguistics and history before becoming a trade union activist.
Her militancy led to a jail term in the 1970s for openly criticising then president Felix Houphouet-Boigny – Ivory Coast’s first leader after independence from France in 1960 – when he rejected opposition calls for multi-party elections.
She and Laurent Gbagbo married in 1989 after founding the opposition socialist Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), and she was later elected to parliament in the world’s leading cocoa producer.
Her husband sought to change relations with former colonial master Paris, arguing that previous regimes had been servile, and the first lady proved a fierce critic of “neo-colonialism”, once famously describing France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy – a main mover in her husband’s downfall – as “the devil”.
Supporters of Simone Gbagbo’s commitment to political causes hailed her as “the Hillary Clinton of the tropics”.
But for detractors, the “Iron Lady” became the “Blood Lady”, amid allegations by human rights activists that the regime used teams of killers to deal with opponents.
Those concerns were reinforced when she was implicated by a French judicial inquiry into the sinister disappearance of French-Canadian journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer in Ivory Coast in 2004.
Gbagbo frequently mingled politics with the evangelical faith she practised after “miraculously” surviving a car crash and starting prayer meetings at the presidential palace.