His freedom and possible return home may shake up the 2020 presidential poll in francophone West Africa’s largest economy.
President Alassane Ouattara’s camp has said he may reconsider a decision not to run if long-time rivals Gbagbo and former president Henri Konan Bedie were to stand.
In the latest high-profile defeat for ICC prosecutors at the Hague, presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said they failed to prove accusations against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, a former political youth leader.
Gbagbo, 73, and Goudé, 46, hugged when the decision was announced. In custody for seven years after French troops flushed him out of a presidential bunker, Gbagbo could be freed as soon as today.
“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,” said defence lawyer Emmanuel Altit.
Rights groups said the verdict denied justice to victims of Ivory Coast’s December 2010-April 2011 post-election conflict, when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by Ouattara and about 3000 people died in violence.
“How can you free someone who has killed our children and our husbands?” shopkeeper Salimata Cisse said, surrounded by a crowd of women in the capital of Abidjan, who were all unhappy at the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, dozens of Gbagbo supporters, many who travelled to The Hague by bus from Paris, broke into cheers at the verdict.
“Ooh-la-la!,” said Gbagbo supporter Olivier Kipre in Abidjan, where people gathered to watch the proceedings on big screens. “I’m so joyful. I will become crazy today because I didn’t believe he would be released.”
Gbagbo was the first former head of state tried at the ICC.
“Forces loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara were responsible for shocking violence,” said Jim Wormington, of Human Rights Watch. Gbagbo had faced four counts including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.
He rose to prominence as a Marxist firebrand lecturer who challenged the rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first post-independence president. That got him imprisoned for two years in 1971. He took asylum in France during the 1980s but came back and led protests that forced the old ruler to allow multi-party democracy in 1990 with an election that Gbagbo lost. Ten years later, Gbagbo supporters helped oust military coup leader General Robert Guei and he took the presidency. Reuters