International Criminal Court appeals judges on Wednesday upheld the acquittals of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and former minister Charles Ble Goude on charges of involvement in deadly post-election violence.
Both were acquitted in 2019 of responsibility for crimes including murder, rape and persecution following disputed elections in 2010, with judges saying prosecutors failed to prove their case. The decision halted the trial before defense lawyers had even presented their evidence.
Wednesday’s appeals panel decision by majority to reject the prosecutors’ appeal against the acquittal ends proceedings against both men.
Dozens of supporters of Gbagbo hugged and cheered outside the court building after the decision.
“Gbagbo is free!” a woman sang in French, while waving an Ivory Coast flag.
Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji said the panel “rejects the prosecutors’ appeal and confirms the decision of the Trial Chamber.”
“The appeals chamber hereby revokes all remaining conditions on the release of Mr. Gbagbo and Mr. Ble Goude as a result of this judgment,” he added.
More than 3,000 people were killed after Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by his rival, current Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara.
Amnesty International West Africa Researcher Michèle Eken said the victims “will be disappointed again today.”
Eken said the acquittal means that “the court has held no one responsible for atrocity crimes committed during this period.”
Prosecutors appealed the 2019 ruling, saying the decision to acquit was wrong and asking appeals judges to declare a mistrial, but the appeals panel rejected all their arguments.
Gbagbo and Ble Goude were released following their acquittals but returned to court for Wednesday’s hearing.
Gbagbo was the first former president to go on trial at the global court and his case was seen as a milestone in efforts to bring to justice even the highest-ranking leaders accused of atrocities.
He refused to concede defeat after losing the 2010 election to Ouattara. Both men held inauguration ceremonies and a months-long standoff ensued until pro-Ouattara forces captured Gbagbo.
Ouattara, who has been in power for nearly a decade, was re-elected in November for a controversial third term strongly contested by opposition leaders. He maintains that the two-term limit for presidents does not apply to him because of a constitutional referendum passed in 2016.
Gbagbo still has strong support in Ivory Coast and his followers say they have been left out the country’s reconciliation process in the years since his ouster. They supported his run for president last year, but his candidacy was not approved.