(CN) — The International Criminal Court ordered the release of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Ivory Coast, and a co-defendant Tuesday after acquitting them of crimes against humanity.
In a 2-1 ruling, the judicial panel said prosecutors failed to prove the former president and his ally, former government minister Charles Blé Goudé, committed crimes against humanity after Gbagbo lost to a rival in the 2010 presidential election.
“The prosecution has not satisfied the burden of proof,” Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser as he issued the oral ruling.
About 3,000 people were killed in clashes between forces aligned with Gbagbo and his rival, Alassane Ouattara, the current president of the West African nation. Both sides committed atrocities against civilians, according to human rights reports.
Gbagbo and Blé Goudé won their acquittals today midway through their trial at The Hague-based International Criminal Court, where prior prosecutions of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba have also fallen apart.
Despite 231 days of hearings involving 82 witnesses and thousands of pages of evidence, the judges said prosecutors did not make a convincing argument tying Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, a former political youth leader, to violence. The court also found that speeches by Gbagbo and Blé Goudé did not amount to inciting violence.
The prosecution argued that the two defendants had the power to stop the violence but allowed it to continue. Prosecutors said pro-Gbagbo forces carried out a widespread and systematic attack against supporters of Ouattara. The attacks included burning people alive in streets, extrajudicial executions, rapes and beatings between late November 2010 and April 2011 in Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere.
The court suspended the immediate release of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé until a Wednesday morning hearing requested by the prosecution to decide if it would appeal. Gbagbo, 73, has been in prison for more than seven years. The defendants could be held in prison pending an appeal, according to court rules.
On a live video feed from the courtroom, members of the defense could be seen hugging each other and celebrating. Supporters of Gbagbo, who were in the courtroom, briefly interrupted the proceeding with their exultation.
The release of Gbagbo comes at a delicate political moment for the Ivory Coast. Presidential elections are slated for next year and bitter divisions remain between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara.
The full decision will released at a later date, Tarfusser said.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Herrera Carbuccia from the Dominican Republic said that the majority’s failure to issue a written opinion “breached fundamental rights of fair trial.”
The judge said she found enough evidence presented to convict the accused.
Before the Tuesday ruling, some legal experts said the prosecution’s case was weak.
Thijs Bouwknegt, a international law specialist who monitors cases involving genocide and war crimes, said on Twitter that the ruling was not a surprise because the prosecution lacked a “smoking-gun-type of evidence” connecting the former president and Blé Goudé to the post-election violence.
Before the ruling, he told Agence France-Presse that the International Criminal Court “should rethink what it could possibly achieve” if Gbagbo were acquitted.
The International Criminal Court is a subject of controversy. It was established in 2002 as a venue to handle the prosecution of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression, which is the act of war-making.
But many countries, among them some of the world’s most powerful, are not members of the court. The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Syria and Iraq are among those that have not ratified or signed the Rome Statute, which set up the court in 1998.
Last year, President Donald Trump told an assembly of the United Nations that the court has “no jurisdiction, no legitimacy and no authority.” More recently, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, has said the United States will refuse to cooperate with the court and threatened to take action against the court if it investigates the actions of the American military in Afghanistan.
The court also has faced criticism for concentrating its efforts on crimes committed in Africa. All 26 cases brought before the court have dealt with crimes in Africa. Before Tuesday’s ruling, the court had issued eight convictions and two acquittals.
The court is looking at alleged crimes committed outside of Africa. Last September, for example, prosecutors said they were examining the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar and their deportation to Bangladesh. Myanmar is not a member of the court. The court also is looking at alleged crimes in Palestine, Ukraine, Iraq, the Philippines, Venezuela and Colombia.
In the Ivory Coast, Tuesday’s ruling is likely to cause both jubilation and anger.
Gbagbo, a former university history lecturer and onetime socialist and labor activist, remains popular in the Ivory Coast. He spent years in exile in Paris and stints in jail in his homeland. His 10 years as president were marked by civil war.
Gbagbo’s pending release comes after his wife was released from prison after being granted amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in prison, according to France 24, a French television broadcaster. The broadcaster said Tuesday’s ruling sparked celebrations in the Ivory Coast, in particular in Gbagbo’s hometown of Gagnoa.
The ICC has been criticized for not bringing charges over the alleged crimes committed by the forces of Ouattara, the president. Ouattara has said he will not send anyone else to face the court in The Hague and that any new trials connected to the post-election violence should be held in national courts.
Last year, Ouattara also announced an amnesty for the majority of crimes committed during that period, according to Human Rights Watch.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)