On Tuesday, March 28, former First Lady Simone Gbagbo was acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The decision was unexpected: there is some pressure on Ivoirian courts, and President Alassane Ouattara’s government might have been expected to want the court to confirm its version of the end of the post-election conflict in 2011.
Ultimately the court case was flawed, and the prosecution was unable to prove that Mrs Gbagbo had given instructions to the men fighting for her husband’s cause who killed civilians in Abidjan in the final days of President Laurent Gbagbo’s presidency.
The main accusation was that she had personally ordered the firing of mortars into Abobo Market and had personally organised attacks led by her husband’s partisans.
Reactions to the court decision give some illustration of important political fault lines in Ivory Coast and abroad.
Mrs Gbagbo’s advocate, of course, saluted the “courage” of the judges and juries for coming to their decision “in an environment where politics often weighs on the judiciary,” although he criticised the court’s unwillingness to call “the real actors, notably some political figures in the current government.”
Mr Gbagbo’s Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI) was happy: its leader Pascal Affi N’Guessan called the decision “a willingness to move towards reconciliation” and called on the government to free another 150 prisoners he calls “political prisoners.”
The Ivoirian Human Rights League (Lidho) said the verdict “leaves a bitter taste for victims and is the reflection of an Ivoirian justice system at bay.”
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) called the trial a “fiasco” for its many weaknesses, and went even further in presuming Mrs Gbagbo’s guilt, saying that it was “unfortunately” not possible to establish her personal responsibility for the civilian deaths.
Issiaka Diaby, representative of an association for justice for victims of the crisis, called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try Mrs Gbagbo; Mr Gbagbo is on trial there, although the case against him, too, is very weak.
The public prosecutor has 60 days to appeal the ruling; he says he will shortly communicate his decision.
There are several ways to interpret the verdict.
We think the court based its decision on the available evidence, which was insufficient to convict Mrs Gbagbo.
Mr Ouattara’s government probably left the court to do this in order to avoid the sight of a 67-year-old woman being sentenced to hard labour, which would have been unpopular (she is anyway already serving a 20-year sentence for “endangering the State”).
Mr Ouattara has promised not to send any more Ivoirians to The Hague, to reassure some of his partisans (who are guilty of more deaths than his adversary’s) that they are not so exposed.
And it is a small gesture of reconciliation to the FPI, the way Mr Affi saw it, and so a slight positive as the social mood in the Ivory Coast remains morose.