The Hague – Judges must review whether to release the ageing former Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo for the rest of his crimes against humanity trial, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
Gbagbo, the first ex-head of state to be tried by the International Criminal Court, won his appeal against a March decision which ordered him to be held in a UN detention centre until the end of the legal process.
Five appeals court judges found the trial judges had “erred” on several points by refusing the 72-year-old an interim release, including failing to consider his age and state of health.
The trial chamber should also “have considered the duration of time Mr Gbagbo has spent in detention… and whether Mr. Gbagbo’s detention continues to be reasonable,” said judge Piotr Hofmanski.
Gbagbo and his former militia leader, Charles Ble Goude, 45, have pleaded not guilty to four charges arising out of post-election violence which wracked Ivory Coast in 2010 to 2011.
About 3,000 people died in the turmoil that swept Abidjan in the aftermath of the November 2010 presidential polls when Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat by bitter rival Alassane Ouattara.
His highly-charged trial on charges of murder, rape and persecution opened at the tribunal in The Hague in January 2016, and is set to last three to four years.
ICC prosecutors accuse Gbagbo of trying to cling to power “by all means,” while his defence team has charged that Ouattara seized power by force with the help of former colonial master France.
Abidjan was turned into a warzone between late 2010 to 2011 as clashes flared between the rival forces. After a months-long standoff, Gbagbo was arrested by Ouattara’s troops aided by UN and French forces, and turned over to the ICC in 2011.
In March, his defence team made a new bid to win Gbagbo’s release, arguing he had already been detained for almost six years “and has pathologies that affect his physical and psychological wellbeing”.
The prosecution said the former Ivorian strongman still enjoyed a strong network of support and if he were freed “could abscond to a territory out of the reach of the court”.
– ‘Age, health at issue’ –
But the appeals judges found more consideration should have been given to Gbagbo’s age, his health and the six years he has already spent in detention.
Reversing the original decision, they directed the trial chamber “to carry out a new review as to whether Mr Gbagbo should continue to be detained or should be released with or without conditions.”
Gbagbo must remain behind bars until the review is complete, however.
Hofmanski stressed the appeals court was “not suggesting what the outcome of the trial chambers review should be.”
Greying and balding, Gbagbo listened intently in court to the ruling, with a large beige scarf wrapped around his neck and wearing a casual blue shirt with a red print.
His lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, told AFP before Wednesday’s ruling that they were urging the appeals chamber to “apply the law”, saying there were strict criteria about keeping people in detention.
Gbagbo “wants to shed light on the truth, he wants to show what really happened. He wants to show the reality of the networks, which were implicated, including those of the French authorities,” Altit said.
How any release of Gbagbo during his trial would work remains unclear, as he is required to attend court, but Altit told AFP all options, including a return to Ivory Coast, remained on the table.
In Ivory Coast, government spokesman Bruno Kone said simply, “We take note (of the decision) and we trust the ICC.”
Gbagbo’s supporters in the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), the party he founded in 1982, issued a statement saying the court’s decision “supports hopes that President Laurent Gbagbo will soon return.”
It called on his supporters to “remain calm and confident” pending the review.