"It is a victory for justice" and a victory "for the ICC, which has now helped to build its legitimacy", commented Laurent Gbagbo's lead counsel Emmanuel Altit after the hearing. The former president of Côte d'Ivoire has just been acquitted by the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC), along with his co-accused, the former Minister of Youth, Charles Blé Goudé.
After three years of trial and presentation of prosecution evidence, the majority of Trial Chamber judges (two out of three) deemed that it was not necessary for the two defence teams to present their arguments. Presiding judge Judge Cuno Tarfusser said that "the Prosecutor has failed to demonstrate the existence of a common plan" as well as the existence of a policy to attack civilians, elements that constitute a crime against humanity. Moreover, it failed to show that the speeches of Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé before and during the Ivorian political crisis had led to the commission of the crimes.
A humiliation for the Prosecutor
This decision is a new blow for the ICC. And not everyone will share lawyer Altit's optimism about the impact of this decision on the Court's reputation. After the collapse of the charges against several Kenyan leaders and the acquittal on appeal seven months ago of former Congolese Vice-President Jean-Pierre Bemba, it is above all a huge blow to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who has failed once again to convict people holding power when atrocities were being committed. In more than fifteen years of existence, the ICC has handed down only three convictions for international crimes -- against former rebel leaders or mid-level actors. In just a few months, it has pronounced as many acquittals, including of two people who held top posts.
It is extremely rare for judges to pronounce an acquittal in the middle of a trial before even hearing the defence. This adds to the bitterness of the setback for the international prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
The Gbagbo case was certainly inherited from former Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, and it is undermined by inadequate investigations. But this can only tarnish Ocampo's successor Fatou Bensouda, who was his deputy for eight years and has been at the head of the prosecution office for six years now -- six years during which she has clearly failed to address the serious shortcomings of her office in terms of investigations and trials. The failure of the Prosecutor’s office is aggravated by the humiliating nature of the procedural circumstances in which the two Ivorians were acquitted. It is extremely rare for judges to pronounce an acquittal in the middle of a trial before even hearing the defence. This adds to the bitterness of the setback for the international prosecutor.
Suspended release order
Following the acquittal of the two Ivorian politicians, the judges ordered their immediate release. However, this release was quickly suspended for 24 hours, at the request of Eric MacDonald, representative of the Prosecutor's office, who seems to be seeking a conditional release pending the delivery of the judges' full decision at a later date. A hearing will be held in the morning of January 16 to debate the matter. "We will do everything in our power, our legal power, to obtain immediate release," said Charles Blé Goudé's senior lawyer Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops after the hearing. And so the two detainees could remain in detention, be released, or be released under conditions.
The Prosecutor's office faces a significant challenge for its future strategy in this case. The judges have not yet made public the precise reasons for the acquittal. For Justice Tarfusser, it was preferable to make an oral decision pending the written decision, in order to protect the rights of the accused. The detailed arguments should be available "as soon as possible".
In a dissenting opinion to the majority's oral decision - which was made public shortly after the hearing - Judge Olga Herrera Carbuccia pointed out that there has not been a detailed single decision, as provided for in the Rome Statute, allowing all parties to know the reasons for the ruling when handed down. She also considers that many of the decisions taken in this case have taken far too long. "As a result," writes Olga Herrera Carbuccia, "I believe that the judges have violated the fundamental rights of a fair trial."
The dissenting judge then comments on the substance of the case. Over more than three pages she explains why, after analysing the evidence, she considers that “there is evidence on which a reasonable Trial Chamber could convict the accused". Olga Herrera Carbuccia is also expected to publish a detailed dissenting opinion in response to the acquittal decision when its details have been published in written form.
In a press release issued at the end of the day, Paolina Massidda, lawyer for the victims in this trial, expressed their "deep disappointment". Stressing that these victims had "participated in the trial in the hope that an impartial tribunal will one day be able to do them justice", she added drily that "this hope is now in vain" and that "no words were spoken to recall their suffering".
TEARS AND CRIES OF JOY
After their acquittal, Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé fell into each other’s arms. Their defence teams were also moved, and the tears flowed. It has been "a long road", Laurent Gbagbo's lawyer Emmanuel Altit later said. In the public gallery, dozens of people who had come to support the former suspects were unable to hold back their joy, despite calls for calm from ICC staff.
6,000 kilometres away in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d'Ivoire, the atmosphere in early afternoon remained calm. "It's quiet, because it's a working day," said Abraham Kouassi, a member of the Citizen Observer platform and JusticeInfo.net correspondent. "But in neighbourhoods like Yopougon there is noise and demonstrations of joy. In the Plateau [the business district], people are talking in small groups. It's as if they don't yet realize it's an acquittal."