International Criminal Court judges said Wednesday that former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo should be released, a day after his shock acquittal over post-electoral violence in which 3,000 people died.
Judges rejected a prosecution bid to keep the 73-year-old fallen strongman in detention pending an appeal against the decision to clear him of crimes against humanity.
Supporters danced and cheered outside the court in The Hague, while in Abidjan the government of Gbagbo’s arch-rival, President Alassane Ouattara, said there was no political obstacle to his return.
However, it remained unclear how soon Gbagbo and his right-hand man Charles Ble Goude would be freed from the ICC’s detention centre.
Plans for any homecoming were also unknown. Gbagbo last year was sentenced by an Ivorian court to a 20-year term for “economic crimes.”
Gbagbo and Ble Goude, 47, were tried over bloodshed that gripped the West African nation in 2010-2011 after Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Ouattara in a presidential vote.
Head judge Cuno Tarfusser said the three-judge panel, by a two to one majority, “rejects the prosecution request to maintain them in detention” following the acquittal.
He said the “exceptionally weak” prosecution evidence in the trial meant an appeal was unlikely to succeed, and that there was no proof the pair would flee justice if asked to return to the court at a later date.
Tarfusser said, however, that the prosecution could still file an appeal against their release.
This could be done during the time needed to complete the “logistical, administrative and diplomatic arrangements” for the men to be freed, he said.
– ‘Overwhelmed with joy’ –
Gbagbo’s daughter Marie Laurence said her father planned to return to his home country, more than seven years after he was arrested there and then sent to The Hague.
“We are so overwhelmed with joy, we are proud of Dad. He went through it with dignity,” she told reporters outside the ICC.
“We think that it was for a cause and that the message was clear — an innocent standing for Africa. Justice prevailed, the truth came out,” she added.
“We assume that the plan is to go back to Cote d’Ivoire. We don’t know how long it will take for all the paperwork.”
Gbagbo has been in detention since 2011, when he was captured by Ouattara’s troops, who were being aided by UN and French forces, and sent to The Hague.
Ivory Coast faces fresh elections in 2020 to elect a successor to Ouattara, who has said he will not stand for re-election after serving two five-year terms.
The government sounded a neutral tone about any return by Gbagbo.
“Any decision lies with him. We have no comment to make otherwise,” said government spokesman Sidi Tiemoko Toure.
He added that the government “urges calm, forgiveness and reconciliation” and that Ouattara “and the government are thinking of the victims” of the crisis.
Gbagbo’s wife Simone, dubbed the Iron Lady, was granted an amnesty by Ouattara last August from a 20-year jail term.
Laurent Gbagbo however still faces a similar sentence for “economic crimes”.
The case meanwhile has put renewed pressure on the ICC after a series of failures in cases involving former national leaders — most of them in Africa.
Last year, DR Congo warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal for crimes allegedly committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-03.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also saw charges of crimes against humanity over electoral bloodshed dropped by the ICC prosecutor in 2014.
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