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, the first head of state to stand trial at the troubled ICC, and his former youth leader Charles Ble Goude, 47. 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”. Their release was suspended until a fresh hearing today 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 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, 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.”
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.”