The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday upheld the 2019 acquittal of Laurent Gbagbo, found not guilty of crimes against humanity, paving the way for the ex-president to return to Côte d’Ivoire after a decade of absence.
The judges rejected an appeal by the ICC prosecutor against the trial chamber’s decision to acquit Laurent Gbagbo and a close associate, Charles Blé Goudé, former leader of the Young Patriots movement, in a trial for crimes against humanity related to post-election violence in 2010 and 2011.
Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, the first former head of state to be tried by the ICC, and Mr. Blé Goudé have always maintained their innocence in the crimes that left 3,000 people dead in Côte d’Ivoire, during the violence that erupted in late 2010 after Mr. Gbagbo refused to recognize the presidential victory of his rival Alassane Ouattara.
By confirming the acquittal under the eyes of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, present at the hearing on Wednesday, the ICC appeals chamber ruled out the holding of an appeal and closed the case, almost 10 years after the opening of the case.
“By a majority, the appeals chamber rejects the prosecutor’s appeal and confirms the decision of the trial chamber,” said presiding judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, former president of the Hague-based ICC.
Gbagbo nodded as the decision was announced, then gave two thumbs up and smiled. At the end of the hearing, he stood up and applauded, while Mr. Blé Goudé shook his fists slightly in victory.
The ICC “hereby rescinds all remaining conditions to the release of Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Blé Goude,” the judge continued, ordering court officials to “make arrangements for the safe transfer of Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and Mr. Blé Goudé to the receiving state or states.
Since his acquittal, Mr. Gbagbo has been living in Belgium. The ICC refused his request for unconditional release, but allowed the former president to leave Belgium to a country willing to receive him.
According to his lawyer, the ex-president has two passports, one ordinary and one diplomatic, issued by the Ivorian authorities. In December, he announced his desire to return to Côte d’Ivoire, but his return is still pending.
The ICC’s decision on the prosecution’s appeal was expected in Côte d’Ivoire, where the shadow of Laurent Gbagbo still hangs over a nation scarred by political violence for more than 20 years. New violence linked to the last presidential election in October 2020, won by Alassane Ouattara who was running for a controversial third term, left nearly 100 people dead.
President from 2000 to 2010, Mr. Laurent Gbagbo, still very popular among his supporters, was arrested in 2011.
After his surprise acquittal – the judges found insufficient evidence against him – the ICC prosecutor’s office said the judges had not given a properly reasoned decision and had made errors of law and procedure.
The court’s outgoing prosecutor general, Fatou Bensouda, had filed an appeal in September 2019, eight months after the acquittal, calling for an appeal trial.
Fatou Bensouda, as well as her services, are under fire: while the ICC, founded in 2002 to try the worst atrocities committed around the world, has convicted Congolese warlords and a Malian jihadist, among others, the prosecution has failed in its most emblematic cases.