In a severe blow to prosecutors, who have lost other major cases in recent years, presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said they did not prove accusations against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, a former political youth leader.
“The chamber by majority hereby decides that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the burden of proof to the requisite standard,” Tarfusser said.
“[The court] grants the defence motions for acquittal for all charges against Mr. Laurent Gbagbo and Mr. Charles Blé Goudé, and orders the immediate release of both accused,” he added.
Gbagbo, 73, and Goudé, 46, hugged in the Hague courtroom after the decision was handed down, while supporters cheered wildly and clapped in the public gallery of the court, prompting Tarfusser to order them to sit down and “behave”. The pair could be released as soon as Wednesday after procedural hearings.
Gbagbo is “relieved and happy. He is happy to have put his faith in the justice process,” said defence lawyer Emmanuel Altit. “It is too soon right now to comment on the future and where he will go, but you can imagine he is very attached to Ivory Coast.”
Outside the courthouse, dozens of Gbagbo supporters, many who traveled to The Hague by bus from Paris, broke into cheers and dancing when the verdict was announced.
Gbagbo was the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC. His release will be a huge disappointment for victims of atrocities in Ivory Coast between December 2010 and April 2011, when he refused to accept defeat by rival Alassane Ouattara.
“Forces loyal to both Gbagbo and Ouattara were responsible for shocking violence. More than 3,000 people were killed and dozens of women raped,” Jim Wormington, an Africa researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.
“People were burnt alive in the street. Men were summarily executed for their perceived political affiliation. Women were targeted for sexual violence.”
Gbagbo was arrested with the help of French and United Nations forces in April 2011, and handed over to the ICC in November that year.
Tuesday’s ruling was yet another defeat for prosecutors, who also lost cases against Jean-Pierre Bemba the Congolese ex-vice president released last year after his war crimes conviction was overturned, and Kenyan President Unhuru Kenyatte, who had charges against him dropped in 2015.
Prosecutors have only won three war crimes convictions over the past 15 years.
Gbagbo faced four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts during post-electoral violence.
“The acquittal of Gbagbo and Blé Goudé will be seen as a crushing disappointment to victims of post-election violence in Cote d’Ivoire,” said Marie-Evelyne Petrus-Barry, Amnesty International’s west and central Africa director.
“This ICC ruling reminds us that fair trial and due process must be at the heart of international criminal justice. Victims of the 2010-2011 violence are yet to see justice and reparations for the harm they suffered.”