International Criminal Court Drops War Crimes Charges Against Ex-Ivory Coast Leader

A panel of judges at the International Criminal Court has dismissed charges of war crimes against former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC. Charges against his former youth minister, Charles Blé Goudé, also were dropped.

Gbagbo and Blé Goudé had been charged with crimes against humanity — murder, rape, persecution as well as other inhumane acts and attempted murder — allegedly committed between December 2010 and April 2011 following Gbagbo's loss to Alassane Ouattara, the current president.

More than 3,000 people were killed in post-election violence that erupted in Ivory Coast.

A majority of the three-judge panel concluded that prosecutors had failed to show that there was a "common plan" to keep Gbagbo in power, nor "the existence of patterns of violence from which it could be inferred that there was a 'policy to attack a civilian population,' " the court said in a press release.

Public speeches by Gbagbo and Blé Goudé did not constitute ordering, soliciting or inducing the alleged crimes, the judges said – adding that they needed no further evidence from the defense.

Gbagbo could be freed as soon as Wednesday, Reuters reports.

The outcome is a setback to the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor, which in June also saw the conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, overturned on appeal.

In a statement, lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office would determine next steps, including whether to appeal. "[M]y Office is vigorously dedicated to doing its part, with the plight of the victims in Côte d'Ivoire foremost and always on our minds," she said.

Sergey Vasiliev, an assistant professor of international law at Leiden University in The Netherlands, wrote on Twitter that for the Office of the Prosecutor, the outcomes of the Gbagbo, Goudé and Bemba cases are "a serious blow to its (already rather tarnished) track record. This should, yet again, lead to a self-critical reflection on its part and a careful review of how it builds and brings forward its cases."

It's time, he added, for the prosecutor's office to reconsider "how individual cases are picked, constructed, and pursued."

When the ruling was announced, supporters of the accused cheered and embraced, The Associated Press reported – and that Gbagbo's fans had been singing and dancing outside the court building before the day's hearing began.

In pro-Gbagbo areas of the Ivorian capital Abidjan, people celebrated the news and filled the streets.

"Ooh-la-la, the judge completely dropped the charges," Olivier Kipre, one of his supporters, told Reuters. "I'm so joyful. I will become crazy today because I didn't believe he would be released."

After refusing to hand over power, Gbagbo was pulled from an underground bunker at the presidential residence in Abidjan in April 2011, and then whisked to The Hague in November 2011. He was held in custody for more than seven years.

In August, President Ouattara declared amnesty for some 800 people involved in the violence that followed the 2010 election. Most notable among them was former first lady Simone Gbagbo, who was serving a 20-year sentence for backing her husband's bloody push to keep power. She has also been indicted by the ICC, but the Ivory Coast has refused to send her, the AP reports.

If Gbagbo decides to stand once more for the presidency, Reuters reports, Ouattara may reconsider his decision not to run again.

Amnesty International's West and Central Africa Director Marie-Evelyne Petrus Barry said in a statement that the acquittal "will be seen as a crushing disappointment to victims of post-election violence in Cote d'Ivoire. ... Victims of the 2010-2011 violence are yet to see justice and reparations for the harm they suffered."

"I lost my arm in 2011 because of pro-Gbagbo forces," Karim Traore, 36, told the AP. "We do not understand the decision of the International Criminal Court to release the former president. We, the victims, have not been heard and it is a real shame."

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