Judges at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and former youth minister Charles Ble Goude of crimes committed following disputed elections in 2010, saying prosecutors failed to prove their case.
In a stunning blow to prosecutors, Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser ordered the immediate release of the 73-year-old Gbagbo and Ble Goude following the judgment midway through their trial. He later suspended that order ahead of a follow-up hearing on Wednesday, when prosecutors are expected to announce whether they will appeal.
Gbagbo was the first former president to go on trial at the global court and his case was seen as a milestone in efforts to bring to justice even the highest-ranking leaders accused of atrocities.
Tarfusser said a majority of the three-judge chamber ruled that “the prosecutor has failed to satisfy the burden of proof” against both men.
He said it was a matter of public record that Ivory Coast was wracked by post-election violence in 2010 and early 2011, but he said prosecutors did not present evidence that Gbagbo and Ble Goude formulated a common plan for their supporters to unleash violence.
More than 3,000 people were killed after Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by his rival and current Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara.
As Tarfusser announced the acquittals, supporters of Gbagbo and Ble Goude stood up and cheered in the courtroom’s gallery.
Lawyers for Gbagbo and Ble Goude asked judges last year to acquit both men for lack of evidence at the end of the prosecution case in their trial that began just under three years ago.
The ruling was the latest defeat for prosecutors at the world’s first global war crimes court.
The case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who also was accused of involvement — before he became president — in post-election violence in his country, collapsed in December 2014. Last year a former Congolese vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was acquitted on appeal of crimes allegedly committed by his militia in neighboring Central African Republic.