Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Mar 28 – An Ivory Coast jury on Tuesday acquitted former first lady Simone Gbagbo of crimes against humanity during the 2010-11 post-election crisis in a stunning verdict after the prosecution had sought to jail her for life.
“A majority of the jury declared Simone Gbagbo not guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused, pronounced her acquittal and ordered that she be immediately freed if she is not being held for other reasons,” said the head of the country’s top criminal court, judge Kouadjo Boiqui.
Once dubbed Ivory Coast’s “Iron Lady,” Gbagbo, who was not in court Tuesday, is already serving a 20-year sentence for “endangering state security.”
The prosecution in summing up its case against the 67-year-old wife of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo on Tuesday had called on the jury to find her “guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentence her to life imprisonment,” said prosecutor Aly Yeo.
He described her as a shadowy figure who orchestrated attacks on her husband’s opponents.
“After her spouse came to power, she started to impose herself as the real head of Ivory Coast, the army, the police and gendarmerie,” Yeo said.
Laurent Gbagbo is on trial for crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and persecution, having been handed over in November 2011 to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The ICC also wanted to prosecute his wife and issued a warrant for her arrest, but Ivorian authorities refused to hand her over, insisting she would receive a fair trial at home.
– 60 days to appeal –
The judge on Tuesday said that the parties had 60 days to appeal the verdict which the jury reached after deliberating for six hours.
The head of Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), former prime minister Pascal Affi Nguessan, welcomed the court decision and said he looked forward to “the release of other political prisoners”.
The FPI said it saw the decision as “a readiness to move to reconciliation”.
Following the 2010 presidential elections, some 3,000 people died in five months of unrest in the cocoa-rich west African state after Laurent Gbagbo, who lost to current Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, refused to step down.
The prosecution charged that Simone Gbagbo had headed a crisis cell — “a genuine decision-making body” that allegedly coordinated attacks by armed forces and pro-Gbagbo militias.
The evidence came from documents found in the home of the presidential couple when the pair were arrested on September 11, 2011, he said.
“She replied to correspondence from arms dealers offering weapons and combat helicopters,” said Yeo.
She was accused of distributing arms to militias backing her husband following his election defeat.
In one case, she allegedly played an indirect role in the shelling of a market in Abobo, a Ouattara stronghold in the economic capital Abidjan, in November 2010.