The International Criminal Court acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of war crimes on Tuesday and ordered his immediate release to the joy of dancing supporters and frustration of victims of atrocities.
His freedom and possible return home may shake up the 2020 presidential poll in francophone west Africa’s largest economy and the world’s biggest cocoa producer.
President Alassane Ouattara’s camp has said he may reconsider a decision not to run if long-time rivals Gbagbo and former president Henri Konan Bedie were to stand.
In the latest high-profile defeat for ICC prosecutors at the Hague, presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said they failed to prove accusations against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, a former political youth leader.
Gbagbo, 73, and Goudé, 46, hugged when the decision was announced. In custody for seven years after French troops flushed him out of a presidential bunker, Gbagbo could be freed as soon as Wednesday.
“It is too soon right now to comment on the future and where he will go, but you can imagine he is very attached to Ivory Coast,” said defense lawyer Emmanuel Altit.
Rights groups said the verdict denied justice to victims of Ivory Coast’s December 2010-April 2011 post-election conflict, when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by rival Alassane Ouattara and about 3,000 people died in violence.
“How can you free someone who has killed our children and our husbands?” 33-year-old shopkeeper Salimata Cisse said, surrounded by a crowd of women in the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan who were all unhappy at the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, dozens of Gbagbo supporters, many who traveled to The Hague by bus from Paris, broke into cheers and dancing at the verdict.
“Ooh-la-la!,” said Gbagbo supporter Olivier Kipre in Abidjan, where people gathered in Gbagbo shirts to watch the proceedings on big screens. “I’m so joyful. I will become crazy today because I didn’t believe he would be released.”
Some threw themselves to the ground or burst into tears, while taxis passing through a pro-Gbagbo enclave tooted horns.
Gbagbo was the first former head of state tried at the ICC.
“Forces loyal to both Gbagbo and Ouattara were responsible for shocking violence,” said Jim Wormington, of Human Rights Watch.
It was another defeat for prosecutors, who also lost cases against Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese ex-vice president released last year after his war crimes conviction was overturned, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had charges dropped in 2015.
Prosecutors have only won three war crimes convictions over the past 15 years. This time, they failed to show Gbagbo’s speeches directly incited crime, judge Tarfusser said.
Gambian prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has held the top job since 2012 but is due to be replaced next year.
“The acquittal underscores how important it is that the process to select the next prosecutor yields a person of integrity and sound judgment who is highly skilled at criminal investigation,” said James A. Goldston, of the Open Society Justice Initiative rights group.
Gbagbo had faced four counts including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.
He rose to prominence as a Marxist firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first post-independence president. That got him imprisoned for two years in 1971.
He took asylum in France during the 1980s but came back and led protests that forced the old ruler to allow multi-party democracy in 1990 with an election that Gbagbo lost.
Ten years later, Gbagbo supporters helped oust military coup leader General Robert Guei and he took the presidency.