Paris — Judges at International Criminal Court in The Hague have upheld the acquittal of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and youth minister Charles Ble Goude, paving the way for both to return home.
The two had been accused of instigating postelection violence, and observers said there were concerns that their return could again destabilize Ivory Coast, the world's largest producer of cocoa.
Gbagbo and Ble Goude were in the courtroom for the verdict. Ble Goude smiled widely as Presiding Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji read it.
"The appeals chamber by majority has found no error that could have materially affected the decision of trial chamber in relation to either of the prosecutors' two grounds of appeal," Eboe-Osuji said. "It therefore rejects the prosecutor's appeal, and confirms the decision of the trial chamber."
The judge also revoked all remaining conditions on the men's release. Gbagbo, who has been staying provisionally in Belgium, has said he wants to return to Ivory Coast, where he remains a heavyweight in the opposition against current President Alassane Ouattara.
In a statement, Gbagbo's defense team hailed the acquittal, saying justice had been done.
In 2019, ICC judges acquitted Gbagbo and Ble Goude of crimes-against-humanity charges related to postelectoral violence in Ivory Coast in 2010 and 2011. The vote saw Ouattara defeating Gbagbo, who refused to concede. Following an investigation of alleged atrocities that included perpetrating murder and rape, Gbagbo became the first former head of state to be arrested on orders of the ICC.
The prosecution appealed the initial acquittal on procedural grounds, all of which were dismissed by the appeals judges, with two of them dissenting.
In some cases, Eboe-Osuji offered particularly strong criticism of prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's arguments, including her apparent suggestions that the first court had hadn't fully considered all the evidence before coming to its verdict.
"Judges of the ICC ... are presumed to act with integrity and impartiality. The appeals chamber would expect evidence of a very clear nature to support such a serious allegation as was made," Eboe-Osuji said.
Wednesday's ruling amounted to yet another setback for the ICC prosecution. Judges previously acquitted on appeal former Democratic of Republic of the Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. Prosecutor Bensouda earlier dropped crimes-against-humanities charges against Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta.
Bensouda is also under U.S. sanctions for launching an investigation into war crimes by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, champions of the 20-year-old ICC argue that its mission -- as a court of last resort taking on extraordinarily difficult cases against powerful figures -- is extremely challenging from the start.
Bensouda's nine-year term is up in June. British prosecutor Karim Khan will succeed her.