The International Criminal Court acquitted former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday 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, and his former youth leader Charles Ble Goude, 47. Gbagbo was the first head of state to stand trial at the troubled ICC,
Gbagbo faced charges of crimes against humanity after 3,000 people were killed in months of clashes in the west African nation when he refused to accept defeat after elections in late 2010.
Prosecutors said Gbagbo clung to power “by all means” after he was narrowly beaten by his bitter rival — now president — Alassane Ouattara in elections in the world’s largest cocoa producer.
But head judge Cuno Tarfusser said that the ICC “by majority hereby decides that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the burden of proof to the requisite standard.”
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.”
Gbagbo, who has spent seven years in detention, and Ble Goude hugged each other after the decision was handed down.
Supporters started cheering, clapping and crying in the court’s public gallery, prompting the judge to order them to sit down and “behave”.
“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.
Wild scenes also erupted in Gbagbo’s home town in the Ivory Coast, Gagnoa, with hundreds of supporters shouting “free, free” and dancing in the streets after watching the decision live on television.
“I’m happy. He did nothing wrong yet he’s spent seven years in prison. It’s important that he should be free, he’s our leader,” said supporter Bertin Sery.
In Abidjan, Assoa Adou, secretary general of Gbagbo’s party the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), predicted the acquittal would ease political tensions rather than exacerbate them.
“We have just made a big step towards reconciliation,” Adou said, amid a jubilant crowd at party headquarters. “Ivory Coast will soon be in peace.”
Gbagbo was captured by Ouattara’s troops, who were being aided by UN and French forces, and sent to The Hague in November 2011. His trial started in January 2016.
But the judges on Tuesday said prosecutors had failed to show there was evidence of a “common plan” to keep Gbagbo in power, a policy of attacking civilians, or that speeches by Gbagbo and Ble Goude incited violence.
Their release was suspended until a fresh hearing on Wednesday to give the prosecution time to respond to the shock judgment.
The office of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the decision was “disappointing and unexpected”, adding that the prosecution had the right to appeal.
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”.
“This is a victory for justice,” Gbagbo’s lawyer Emmanuel Altit told a press conference after Tuesday’s decision.