Child soldiers. Torture. Rape. Mass executions.
These are some of the atrocities attributed to the regime of Laurent Gbagbo, former president of West Africa’s Ivory Coast. He is currently standing trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity, which he has denied.
Gbagbo (pronounced bag’-boh) was extradited following his refusal to step down after losing the presidential election in November of 2010 and plunging the country, officially known as the Republic of Cote d’Iviore, into another round of bloody civil war.
According to prosecutors, from Dec. 16 through Dec. 19 of 2010, Gbagbo oversaw a campaign of murder, rape, and “other inhumane acts.” The court granted 727 people victim status for the proceedings.
Though the Ivory Coast government’s conduct during this period was well documented, one detail hasn’t come to light until now: the role of an American political player who was working behind the scenes to assist the embattled West African government.
On December 21, 2010 — just days after Gbagbo refused to step down and executed a brutal crackdown on the opposition — Omri Ceren registered with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit in order to work on behalf of the Gbagbo regime regarding the Ivory Coast conflict.
Ceren, at the time a registered lobbyist and VP of the strategic communications firm Davis-Block LLC, today serves as national security adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Ceren was hired for the job in late April, according to a press release issued by Cruz’s office.
According to the 2010 Justice Department documents signed by Ceren, he was to “render services” to the “Government of Cote d’lvoire” in relation to “the current conflict over the November 28, 2010 elections.”
Although the records are short on details, they also note that Ceren would “provide policy and public affairs advice to Lanny J. Davis & Associates, LLC as they advise the Government of Cote d’lvoire.” Lanny Davis, a prominent DC lawyer and lobbyist, was a principal at Davis-Block.
Additional Justice Department documents show that Davis-Block assisted Lanny J. Davis & Associates with multiple press conferences and press releases relaying some Ivory Coast claims regarding the presidential election. Davis-Block also created a website and email address on behalf of the Ivory Coast government.
Neither Ceren nor Cruz responded to requests for comment.
Davis today characterizes Ceren’s role as minimal. “Omri did almost nothing on Ivory Coast. I did virtually everything,” he said in an email to TYT.
In a subsequent phone interview, Davis told TYT, “Omri may have sent out a few notices to reporters.” Davis said that the State Department wanted him to facilitate the creation of a commission that could buy time to arrange for Gbagbo’s safe passage out of the country.
“That’s what Omri sent a few notices about: We need a commission,” Davis said.
At the time, there was genuine political disagreement in the U.S. about whether Gbagbo should go at all. Gbagbo’s American defenders included Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who expressed concerns about the replacement of Gbagbo, a Christian who had attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, by the Muslim Alassane Ouattara.
Cruz was not yet in the Senate at the time. Since taking office, Cruz has been criticized for tolerating brutal dictatorships that don’t represent direct threats to the United States.
Before getting hired by Cruz, Ceren was known as an outspoken hard-liner on foreign policy matters, especially regarding Israel and Iran. He was a vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal.
Ceren does not appear to have any formal credentials in national security. His LinkedIn profile lists an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Pittsburgh. Ceren worked as a blogger for several years before becoming managing director of The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy organization.
The Israel Project’s president and CEO is Josh Block, the other principal at Davis-Block. From 2002 through 2010, Block was spokesman and director of strategic communications for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Lanny J. Davis & Associates reportedly was to have been paid $100,000 per month to represent Gbagbo’s regime. But after a public outcry, Davis submitted a letter of resignation, calling it a “difficult decision.”
By the time Davis announced his resignation, the United Nations, Amnesty International and actual eyewitnesses had alleged that Gbagbo’s regime unleashed a campaign of terror against his opposition, involving killings, kidnappings and night raids. Prior to this, Human Rights Watch alleged that Ivory Coast had recruited child soldiers.
In 2011, Amnesty International reported that forces allied with Gbagbo committed mass executions, torture, and rapes in the months of violence following his refusal to step down.
Davis said in his own Justice Department filing that he wanted to present “substantial documentary evidence that President Laurent Gbagbo is the duly elected president” — despite the international consensus that Gbagbo had lost. Since then, Davis has insisted that he merely sought to secure a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Davis disputes the notion that he aided Gbagbo. “I did not defend a corrupt dictator...I represented him,” Davis told TYT. Davis said he considers Gbagbo “a corrupt, disgusting, murdering dictator.”
“I was really working secretly with US State Department to get the thug Gbagbo out of the country to honor the results of new elections,” Davis wrote in his email to TYT. Although his filings identified his client as the Ivory Coast government, Davis told TYT the actual client was the country’s embassy in Washington, not Gbagbo or his regime.
Davis has been a prominent and at times controversial Washington figure. He has been criticized for representing dictators besides Gbagbo. In 2010, Davis accepted a $1 million contract from the dictator of the oil-rich Central African nation of Equatorial Guinea.
Davis first gained national attention as special counsel to President Bill Clinton, whom he defended against numerous scandals, and served for years as a fierce advocate for both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
More recently, Davis has drawn scrutiny for his work as a registered foreign agent for Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch and former business associate of disgraced Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is now fighting extradition to the US on charges of international racketeering and money laundering.
Davis also represented Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal lawyer, during his trial involving Trump and adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels. Davis this summer acknowledged giving reporters differing accounts of what Cohen knew about Trump.
“I have only good things to say about Omri,” Davis told TYT. “An old friend and colleague on pro-Israel causes, he is one of the finest people I know with outstanding integrity and conscience.”