Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo enters the courtroom at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on  Jan. 15. (Peter Dejong/AP)

On Jan. 15, Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court (ICC) acquitted Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Ivory Coast, and his former aide, Charles Blé Goudé, of all charges and ordered their immediate release from prison.

ICC prosecutors had charged both men with four crimes against humanity — murder, rape, other inhumane acts and persecution — after the political violence that engulfed their country in the aftermath of the contentious 2010 presidential elections.

What just happened in this three-year trial, and what does it mean for the ICC’s mandate? Here’s what you need to know.

The defense offered a motion for acquittal

The ICC dedicated more than 200 hearing days to evidence presented by the prosecutor’s office. After prosecutors had finished making their case in March 2018, lawyers for Gbagbo and Blé Goudé introduced a motion for acquittal and immediate release. Instead of presenting their case, the defense team asked the court to evaluate the evidence presented by the prosecutor and declare it insufficient to move to the second half of the trial.

Two of the three judges found that the evidence did not show there was a “common plan” to keep Gbagbo in power after the contested elections and that speeches by the two defendants did not constitute “ordering, soliciting, or inducing the alleged crimes.”

Without the existence of a state or organizational policy to attack civilians and the evidence of a link between Gbagbo and Blé Goudé speeches to the acts of violence, the majority of the chamber ruled that the defendants were innocent of the charges of crimes against humanity.

What are the next steps? 

The prosecutor’s office will appeal the acquittal ruling once the Trial Chamber produces its written decision. In the meantime, after the decision to release Gbagbo and Blé Goudé immediately, the prosecutor’s office introduced an urgent request to suspend the order of release. The Appeals Chamber decided that Gbagbo and Blé Goudé would remain in custody, pending a Feb. 1 hearing “to hear further submissions on the appeal.”

What does this mean for the ICC?

It is important to reiterate that the trial judges decided to acquit Gbagbo and Blé Goudé in the middle of the trial, without finding it necessary to let the defense present its case. Legal analysts and human rights groups see this as a major setback for the ICC’s prosecution team. The decision also spotlights the fact that the ICC thus far has been unable to successfully prosecute any state official — charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped; Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto’s case was dismissed; Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted by the Appeals Chamber; and Sudanese President Omar Bashir is still at large.

In the Ivory Coast case, going after the top political leaders without strong evidence directly linking them to the crimes proved to be a mistake. Human rights organizations also called the investigation one-sided. In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo’s challenger at the time and current president of Ivory Coast, had also committed atrocities.

While conducting fieldwork in The Hague five years ago, I brought up this question to a senior member of the prosecutor’s office. He responded: “We decided to go after the pro-Gbagbo side first because it [was] a lot more readily available; most of the perpetrators in the Gbagbo side were already arrested or available to us. We had access to the presidential palace and all the files from the Gbagbo regime. … We considered that we would do the allegations against the Ouattara side in a subsequent phase.” The simple truth is that this sequential approach never materialized. 

For the ICC as a whole, the effects of this acquittal are more complex. In many ways, the Gbagbo case helps legitimize the court as an institution where defendants get a fair trial. This is especially important, as critics of the court claim the ICC unfairly targets Africans. It also highlights the judicial integrity and independence of the ICC judges — who many times ruled adversely against the prosecutor’s office and the expectations and lobbying efforts of human rights groups.

However, countries that oppose the court, such as the United States, will yet again question the need for the ICC, and its efficacy. After more than 17 years of operations, the court has convicted only three individuals — all of them rebels or militia members — for atrocity crimes.

What about the victims?

Without a guilty ruling in this ICC case, the hundreds of victims who participated in the trial will not be eligible for court-mandated reparations. At the national level, although the Ouattara administration had established a truth and reconciliation commission, it has fallen short of supporting a credible justice and accountability mechanism.

Human rights organizations tend to be rattled by ICC acquittals. Ultimately the International Criminal Court is just that — a criminal court — not a human rights court. As such, the ICC’s mandate is to evaluate the evidence presented and establish the guilt or innocence of the accused. The takeaway from the Ivory Coast case will probably lead victims, prosecutors and other parties in the international justice realm to reassess their expectations.

The road to the 2020 elections 

If the Appeals Chamber upholds the decision to release Gbagbo and Blé Goudé, their return to Ivorian politics would essentially bring them back in the arena with the same protagonists of the previous Ivorian crisis: Ouattara, the former political leader of the rebellion Guillaume Soro, and former president Henri Konan Bedie. Bedie recently left his coalition with Ouattara and has expressed his willingness to join forces with Gbagbo’s party.

Ouattara will complete his second and final term in 2020 and technically should step down. Yet he is floating the idea that the wording of the 2016 Constitution allows him to seek another term. Soro, meanwhile, believes it is his turn to ascend to the presidency. With the same players lining up for 2020, the factors for another explosive political situation in Ivory Coast may again be in place. 

Oumar Ba is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His research focuses on the ICC and the politics of international criminal justice. You can follow him on Twitter at @OumarKBa.