JUDGES at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday ordered the immediate release of ex-Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo and his co-defendant Charles Ble Goude.
Gbagbo, 73, has spent seven years in detention in The Hague accused of fomenting bloodshed after refusing to accept defeat in elections in the West African nation in 2010.
Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said that prosecutors failed to prove their case and Gbagbo and his co-defendant, Charles Blé Goudé, a close ally and former political youth leader, should be set free.
Gbagbo’s freedom arguments
Gbagbo had asked the ICC — set up in 2002 to try to the world’s worst crimes — to completely acquit him on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to proceed with the trial.
He also lodged a separate application asking for bail should the trial continue. ICC judges rejected another application for bail by Gbagbo as recently as April.
Gbagbo’s lawyers said in November that his trial had descended into ‘fake reality’ and that prosecutors had distorted history about the violence in Cote d’Ivoire.
At a bail hearing in December, they argued that the ‘elderly and fragile’ suspect would pose no flight risk if freed on bail and that he was ageing faster because of the length of time he had spent behind bars.
Africa Briefing, in its editorial of the December 2018 edition, predicted Gbagbo’s imminent release due to the lack of any credible witnesses to bolster the prosecution’s case.
‘Laurent Gbagbo, the former President of Cote d’Ivoire who is still languishing in a prison cell in The Hague, looks set to walk free because the Office of the Prosecutor cannot bring a credible case against him. ICC judges have been threatening to order his release if nothing tangible is done. The issue is compounded by the fact that the ICC appears to be undertaking victors’ justice. None of the leaders whose armed groups ousted Gbagbo are in The Hague, although Bensouda has always made bold that this will not be the case. Funding is at the heart of the ICCs problem,’ Africa Briefing stated.
Why was Gbagbo in jail?
About 3,000 people died in clashes during what prosecutors say was an attempt by Gbagbo and Ble Goude to ignore the internationally recognised victory of Gbagbo’s bitter rival Alassane Outtara.
The pair were accused of four counts of crimes against humanity including murder, rape and persecution during post-electoral violence.
Gbagbo was arrested after a months-long standoff with Ouattara’s troops, aided by UN and French forces. He was turned over to the ICC in 2011.
Charges against Gbagbo
Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé, a close ally and former political youth leader, have been on trial since 2016 for war crimes allegedly committed under Gbagbo’s leadership.
Gbagbo himself faces four counts of crimes against humanity including;
- Other inhumane acts
Legal experts say that during the trial, prosecutors presented a lot of evidence crimes but few witnesses could link the ex-president directly.
‘The prosecutor had a lot of insider witnesses, but if you look at their actual testimony it seems like many were afraid to implicate themselves,’ said Thijs Bouwknegt, an Amsterdam University researcher on genocide.
‘A real link between the former president and the alleged crimes is hard to make.’
Prosecutors argued the evidence showed Gbagbo and his inner circle hatched a plan to cling to power by whatever means necessary and that the trial should continue.
But the panel of three judges were split over his ongoing custody, with one repeatedly insisting Gbagbo should be released provisionally while awaiting the outcome.
‘There is a lot of pressure on the ICC to make this case a success,’ said Bouwknegt.
ICC’s acquittal record
An acquittal is a major setback for the prosecution, stung by defeats in cases against Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese ex-vice president released in June after his war crimes conviction was overturned, and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who saw charges against him dropped in 2015.
The collapse of the case against Gbagbo, the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC will bolster opponents questioning its effectiveness after just three war crimes convictions in 15 years.