The family of former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo is preparing for his return to Abidjan after International Criminal Court judges rejected a prosecution request to keep him in detention in the Hague on Wednesday.
Judges ruled on Tuesday that prosecutors had failed to prove any case against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Ble Goude and that his continued detention could no longer be justified. Gbagbo has been in custody for seven years.
On Wednesday, the court rejected a prosecution motion to keep the men in custody for any possible appeal by prosecutors, dismissing the case as “exceptionally weak”.
Discussions about their release were under way with member states, including Belgium, where Gbagbo has family.
Despite his victory at The Hague, Gbagbo faces a possible 20-year prison sentence in Ivory Coast, based on a conviction in absentia last January for misappropriating funds from the central bank of the eight-nation West African CFA franc zone.
Gbagbo’s acquittal was deplored by victims’ groups representing those who died in violence that killed around 3,000 people, during Ivory Coast’s 2010 election, which Gbagbo refused to concede.
His opponents burned tyres in Abidjan on Wednesday to protest the ICC ruling. Thick smoke filled the air as people chanted and held placards in Abobo, a northern district of Abidjan.
“I lost my tooth because of the protests, because of the Gbagbo camp. I can’t accept that Gbagbo and Ble Goude have been freed. Let them stay there!” shouted one protester.
Hundreds of thousands fled the unrest that prosecutors blamed on Gbagbo in 2010, and victims fear his return home could revive hostilities in Abidjan.
Prosecutors have said they would appeal the decision and that there could be a retrial, but the presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said two out of three judges believed the case against Gbagbo and his co-defendant was so weak, it was unlikely their acquittals would be overturned on appeal.
Outside the court, Gbagbo’s supporters including his daughter Marie-Laurence Gbagbo gathered to celebrate, drinking champagne and cheering the result.
“We are so overwhelmed with joy we are completely excited. We are so proud of dad, he went through it with dignity. He endured and we think that it was for a cause and that the message was clear: ‘I am innocent and I’m standing for the whole of Africa’ and so we are really proud.”
Ivory Coast’s government on Wednesday called for “reconciliation” amid the protests, with Communications Minister Sidi Toure urging calm and forgiveness.
He added that President Alassane Ouattara “and the government are thinking of the victims” of the 2010-11 post-election crisis that led to Gbagbo’s trial.