The Hague, Netherlands, Jan 16 – The International Criminal Court on Wednesday ordered the release of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, a day after his shock acquittal over post-electoral violence in which 3,000 people died.
Judges rejected a bid by prosecutors to keep the 73-year-old fallen strongman in detention pending an appeal against the decision to clear him of crimes against humanity in the west African nation.
As supporters danced and cheered outside the court in The Hague, in Abidjan the government of Gbagbo’s arch-rival, President Alassane Ouattara, said there was no political obstacle to his return.
Gbagbo and his right-hand man Charles Ble Goude were tried over bloodshed that gripped the former French colony in 2010-2011 after Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to Ouattara in a presidential vote.
The ICC said in a statement that the three-judge panel “decides to release Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Ble Goude following acquittal”, adding that there were “no exceptional circumstances preventing the release” despite arguments to the contrary by prosecutors.
Judges “directed the ICC registrar to make the necessary logistical, organisational and diplomatic arrangements for the release of Mr Gbagbo and Mr Ble Goude”.
They must also vow to return to the court in case of a retrial, they said.
ICC prosecutors can still lodge an appeal against the decision to release them, the court said.
– ‘Overwhelmed with joy’ –
However it remained unclear how soon Gbagbo and Ble Goude — a former minister and youth movement leader — would be freed, and where they would go afterwards.
Gbagbo’s daughter Marie Laurence said her father planned to return home after seven years in detention.
“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 Ivory Coast. We don’t know how long it will take for all the paperwork.”
Gbagbo has been behind bars since 2011, when he was captured by Ouattara’s troops, aided by UN and French forces, and sent to The Hague.
Violence after the November 2010 election turned Abidjan into a war zone and destabilised the African economic powerhouse, the world’s largest cocoa-producing nation.
Gbagbo went on trial in 2016 but on Tuesday judges threw out the case midway, saying the prosecution case was “exceptionally weak” and that there was no need even to hear from the defence.
– ‘Calm, forgiveness and reconciliation’ –
In Ivory Coast, however, Gbagbo still faces a 20-year jail term for “economic crimes” imposed by a local court last year.
“Any decision lies with him. We have no comment to make otherwise,” said government spokesman Sidi Tiemoko Toure when asked about a Gbagbo homecoming.
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 similar 20-year jail term.
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 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 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.