THE HAGUE/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of war crimes on Tuesday and ordered his release to the joy of dancing supporters and frustration of victims of atrocities.
His freedom and possible return home could shake up the 2020 presidential poll in francophone west Africa’s largest economy and the world’s biggest cocoa producer.
President Alassane Ouattara’s camp has said he may reconsider a decision not to run if long-time rivals Gbagbo and former president Henri Konan Bedie were to stand.
In the latest high-profile defeat for ICC prosecutors at the Hague, presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said they failed to prove accusations against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, a former youth leader.
Gbagbo, 73, and Goudé, 46, hugged after the verdict. In custody for seven years after French troops flushed him out of a presidential bunker, Gbagbo could be freed as soon as Wednesday.
His wife, Simone Gbagbo, told Reuters he would return to Ivory Coast, but declined to comment on whether he might plan to stand for president next year.
“Wait for him to arrive and you can ask him all the questions,” she told Reuters at her home in Abidjan thronged with celebrating supporters.
Rights groups said the verdict denied justice to victims of the December 2010-April 2011 post-election conflict, when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by Ouattara and about 3,000 people died.
“How can you free someone who has killed our children and our husbands?” shopkeeper Salimata Cisse, 33, said, amid a crowd of unhappy women in the commercial capital Abidjan.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office held the right to appeal and intended “to make submissions on the matter” at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Outside the court, dozens of Gbagbo supporters, many of whom came by bus from Paris, broke into cheers and dancing.
“Ooh-la-la!,” said Gbagbo supporter Olivier Kipre in Abidjan, where people gathered in Gbagbo shirts to watch proceedings on big screens. “I’m so joyful. I will become crazy today because I didn’t believe he would be released.”
Some threw themselves to the ground or burst into tears, while taxis in a pro-Gbagbo enclave tooted horns.
Gbagbo was the first former head of state tried at the ICC.
ICC prosecutors also lost big cases against Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese ex-vice president released last year after his war crimes conviction was overturned, and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had charges dropped in 2015.
Prosecutors have only won three war crimes convictions over the past 15 years. This time, they failed to show Gbagbo’s speeches directly incited crime, judge Tarfusser said.
Gbagbo had faced four counts including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.
“Forces loyal to both Gbagbo and Ouattara were responsible for shocking violence,” said Jim Wormington, of Human Rights Watch.
In the wake of his acquittal, Gbagbo’s return to the Ivorian political arena in some capacity is all but certain, said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Adeline VanHoutte.
“Whether he will decide to run in the 2020 presidential election is unclear, but either way, he will have a large influence on the outcome of these elections,” she said.
He rose to prominence as a Marxist firebrand lecturer who challenged the autocratic rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first post-independence president. That got him imprisoned for two years in 1971.
He took asylum in France during the 1980s but came back and led protests that forced the old ruler to allow multi-party democracy in 1990 with an election that Gbagbo lost.
Ten years later, Gbagbo supporters helped oust military coup leader General Robert Guei and then took the presidency.
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg, Anthony Deutsch, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan; Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Writing by Anthony Deutsch and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne