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He gave both thumbs up to his lawyer when the verdict was announced. For Laurent Gbagbo, it is over. After a decade-long trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC), he is finally free.
On 31 March, the ICC Appeal Chamber confirmed his acquittal and that of Charles Blé Goudé, earlier pronounced on 15 January 2019. The two men were accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, which had left more than 3,000 dead.
“The appeals chamber rejects the prosecutor’s appeal and confirms the trial chamber’s decision,” said Nigerian judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, president of the chamber and former president of the ICC, at the end of a lengthy one-hour trial during which he had gone over the different stages of the proceedings.
The appeals chamber also decided to revoke all the conditions for release of Gbagbo and Goudé, who are now free to go.
“Ten years almost to the day after the start of these proceedings, this decision is a victory for justice, but also the victory of a man, that of President Laurent Gbagbo, who was unjustly accused and whose innocence is now fully recognised,” said Emmanuel Altit, his lawyer. “This 31 March will also remain an important date for Côte d’Ivoire, because this decision paves the way for national reconciliation.”
In front of the court’s main entrance, dozens of supporters of the former president and the former leader of the Jeunes Patriotes cheered when the announcement was made. “We’ve finally made it,” said Prisca Digbeu, who came specially from France for the occasion.
“In 2011, we were in tears when Laurent Gbagbo entered the ICC, because we didn’t know when he would come out. Ten years later, we are happy and moved. The time has come for him to return to Côte d’Ivoire to participate in national reconciliation.”
A decade of proceedings
After the verdict was announced, Gbagbo isolated himself with his wife, Nady Bamba, and lawyers in a courtroom. The 75-year-old former head of state, who has been severely weakened by his eight years of detention, was hanging on every word during the phone call but did not wish to react publicly.
Early in the afternoon, he arrived at the ICC, which was deserted due to the ongoing health crisis. Wearing a dark suit and tie as well as sunglasses, he said that he was “confident” about the outcome of the proceedings. He also added, smiling as he entered the main hall of the ICC, that “this is the first time I have been through here and not through the prisoners’ entrance!”
For the office of the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who had appealed against the acquittal of the two men in September 2019, this decision is a new stinging disavowal.
In January 2019, the judges had pointed to the prosecution’s lack of evidence – the president of the chamber even going so far as to mention the “exceptional weakness” of the prosecutor’s case. As she prepares to hand over the reins to Britain’s Karim Khan in June, there is no doubt that this case will be remembered as the Gambian magistrate’s biggest failure during her tenure at the ICC.
For Gbagbo and Goudé, it is the end of a long judicial battle. After several years of detention in Scheveningen prison, they were released conditionally after their acquittal at first instance. Forced to stay close to the ICC and remain at its disposal, the former head of state and his wife moved to Brussels, while Goudé chose to remain in The Hague.
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Gbagbo and Goudé then had their parole eased in May 2020. In concrete terms, they were allowed to change their place of residence and live wherever they wanted, provided they obtained permission from the relevant country’s authorities. Immediately, Gbagbo’s supporters began to dream of their mentor’s imminent return to Côte d’Ivoire.
Negotiations for a return
Although Gbagbo expressed a desire to go back to Abidjan, his return home kept getting postponed. The former president faced many obstacles, as he didn’t have a passport and had lost the 31 October 2020 presidential election.
His relatives accused the Ivorian authorities of doing everything in their power to prevent him from returning home. For their part, Alassane Ouattara and his entourage assured him that they were willing to allow his return home, but only after the ICC had determined his fate.
After his re-election to a third term last October, at the end of an election marked by violence and an “active boycott” by some of the opposition candidates, the head of state considered allowing his predecessor to come back home. While negotiations between the two camps had been previously held behind the scenes between discrete emissaries, they were now official.
In early January, Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko – who has since died – officially received Assoa Adou, the secretary-general of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI), to formally discuss the conditions of the former president’s return to Abidjan.
One of the obstacles that still remains between him and his safe return home is his sentence by the Ivorian justice system in January 2018 of up to 20 years in prison for “looting” the Ivorian branch of the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO).
For his part, Ouattara – although not in a hurry to see his former rival return – has nevertheless repeated that he would allow Gbagbo to return home once he had been definitively acquitted by the ICC.
This is now a done deal.
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