The International Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo over a wave of post-electoral violence, in a stunning blow to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Judges ordered the immediate release of the 73-year-old deposed strongman, the first head of state to stand trial at the troubled ICC, and his right-hand man Charles Ble Goude, 47.
Gbagbo faced charges of crimes against humanity over the 2010-2011 bloodshed following a disputed vote the West African nation in which around 3,000 people were killed.
Prosecutors said Gbagbo clung to power “by all means” after he was narrowly defeated by his bitter rival — now president — Alassane Ouattara in elections in the world’s largest cocoa producer.
Gbagbo and Ble Goude hugged each other after the decision was handed down while supporters started cheering wildly and clapping in the public gallery of the court, prompting head judge Cuno Tarfusser to order them to sit down and “behave”.
“The chamber by majority hereby decides that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the burden of proof to the requisite standard,” Tarfusser told the court.
He added that the court “grants the defence motions for acquittal for all charges for Mr Laurent Gbagbo and Mr Charles Ble Goude and orders the immediate release of both accused.”
‘Finally some justice’
“I am very, very happy. Finally there is some justice,” Gragbayou Yves, 45, a Gbagbo supporter from Paris, told AFP in the public gallery moments after the judgment was passed.
Gbagbo was captured by Ouattara’s troops, who were being aided by UN and French forces, and sent to The Hague November 2011.
He trial started in January 2016, which means he has spent more than seven years in detention.
But the judges on Tuesday said prosecutors had failed to show there was evidence of a “common plan” to foment violence and ruled that there was no case to answer.
Their release was suspended until Wednesday to give the prosecution time to respond to the shock judgment.
The highly divisive case has tested the court’s avowed aim of delivering justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes.
It comes after a series of setbacks for the tribunal, which began life more than 16 years ago.
Victims in Ivory Coast had previously appealed to the court not to free Gbagbo.
“If Laurent Gbagbo is released, we victims will not see justice,” added Karim Coulibaly, 43, whose arm was amputated after he was shot during the violence.
“I was a driver but now I am unemployed. I’m not against reconciliation but first you have to look after the victims.”
Gbagbo’s lawyers last year argued that his case had descended into “fake reality” and should be dismissed, adding that he was now “elderly and fragile”.
The ICC has faced serious difficulties over attempts at to try top politicians for crimes committed by subordinates or followers — most of them in Africa.
Last year, former DR Congo warlord and ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal for crimes allegedly committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also saw charges of crimes against humanity over electoral bloodshed dropped by the ICC’s prosecutor in 2014.
“If Gbagbo walks out free, the ICC should rethink what it could possibly achieve,” Thijs Bouwknegt, an international law specialist, told AFP.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Gbagbo acquittal means he follows in the footsteps of his wife Simone Gbagbo.
The so-called Iron Lady walked away from a 20-year jail term in Ivory Coast in August when she was granted an amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in detention.