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After being definitively convicted of crimes against humanity, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo and his youth leader Charles Ble Goude are “free to return to Ivory Coast whenever they want.”

Ouattara’s comments came a week after the International Criminal Court (ICC) upheld Gbagbo’s acquittal, with appeals judges announcing that he was fully free of charges in the aftermath of the 2010-11 election unrest.

“Arrangements will be made so that Laurent Gbagbo can enjoy, in accordance with the laws in place, the advantages and allowances available to former presidents,” Ouattara said at the start of a cabinet meeting in Abidjan.

After his release from detention in 2019, Gbagbo has been living in Brussels under ICC orders. The decision last week exonerates him of four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, and rape committed during the war.

While spending years in prison in The Hague, the 75-year-old has maintained good support at home and has been preparing for a possible comeback since last year.

As the country approached presidential elections last year, he cast himself as a conciliatory figure, warning of the possibility of “catastrophe” in the face of increasing tensions.

Many people died as a result of the violence that erupted after Ouattara declared his bid for a third term, a move that critics said flouted constitutional limits on presidential tenure. Because of a constitutional referendum passed in 2016, Ouattara claims that the two-term cap for presidents does not apply to him.

Re-elected Ouattara extended an olive branch to his former opponent in the bleak aftermath of a vote that was almost unanimously boycotted by the opposition. He told Gbagbo that he had a part to play in the reconciliation process and gave him two passports, one of which was a diplomatic pass.

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Gbagbo’s FPI party broke a decade-long boycott of legislative elections this month as tensions eased.

More than 3,000 people were killed in the civil war that erupted after Gbagbo challenged the outcome of the 2010 presidential election in Ivory Coast, in which Ouattara was declared the winner.

After being removed from power in April 2011, Gbagbo was hauled off to the ICC, becoming the first head of state to face trial at the Hague-based tribunal.

The 10-year legal saga over the unrest came to an end last week with the verdict.

Following the acquittal, Amnesty International West Africa researcher Michele Eken said that the victims “will be disappointed again today.”

The acquittal, according to Eken, means that “no one has been held accountable for atrocity crimes committed during this time,” but Gbagbo’s supporters believe it will help to heal the country’s wounds.

Gbagbo faces a 20-year prison sentence if he returns, having been convicted in absentia for “looting” the local branch of the Central Bank of the West African States during the war. This case, according to analysts, seems impossible.

Ble Goude, for one, said last week that he would ask the government if he could return after being convicted in Ivory Coast in his absence.

“I’m Ivorian, I will go back home but only when the government will … give me the authorisation,” Ble Goude told reporters after his definitive acquittal.

Source: ALJAZEERA

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