Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on Monday asked the International Criminal Court to acquit him of crimes against humanity and free him after seven years in detention.
Gbagbo, 73, is the first-ever head of state to be handed over to the Hague-based ICC, where he has been on trial since 2016.
He faces four counts of crimes against humanity for his role in fomenting a wave of post-electoral violence eight years ago in the west African nation.
After more than two years on trial, Gbagbo’s lawyers believe the prosecution failed to prove the charges and are demanding a “full dismissal, an acquittal on all charges” and Gbagbo’s immediate release.
“We are confident that president Laurent Gbagbo will be acquitted, released and will be able to return to his country,” said Justin Koua, the youth chairman of a coalition of political parties including Gbagbo’s own Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) as well as civil society groups.
“Mr Gbagbo is suffering an injustice,” he told AFP.
Defence lawyers want the same for Gbagbo’s right-hand man Charles Ble Goude, 46, leader of the “Young Patriots” group which allegedly murdered and raped hundreds of people in order to keep Gbagbo in charge.
Judges joined the two men’s cases before trial started and both pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors, however, argued in court that the judges should reject the attempt to throw out the case.
Eric MacDonald said that evidence of the crimes committed against supporters of Gbagbo’s rival Alassane Ouattara were never investigated or followed up “including in very serious cases involving murder. Nobody was ever punished.”
‘Clung to power’
Around 200 supporters wearing “free Gbagbo” t-shirts, some of them waving Ivory Coast flags, rallied outside the court on Monday before the hearing.
“We demand that our president is freed. Mr Gbagbo simply defended his country,” said Jules Okou, a 58-year-old Ivorian from Paris.
On Monday, the court’s proceedings were being televised on a giant screen in an Abidjan neighbourhood stronghold of Gbagbo and Ble Goude.
Several opposition figures are expected to attend the event billed as the “last steps before an acquittal” for the two leaders.
But the Ivorian state has blasted the move.
“The former Ivorian head of state is preparing to demand a dismissal even before the trial is completed and defence witnesses have been heard,” the Ivorian state’s lawyers said in a statement.
“It’s a bluff,” the lawyers said.
Unrest wracked Ivory Coast for five months from December 2010 until early 2011, after Gbagbo refused to accept his internationally-recognised defeat by bitter rival Alassane Ouattara.
The crisis — which saw both sides level allegations of gross abuses — paralysed the world’s largest cocoa producer and west African powerhouse for several months. About 3,000 people died when rival supporters clashed on the streets of Abidjan, which was then one of west Africa’s most cosmopolitan cities.
After a months-long standoff, Gbagbo was arrested by Ouattara’s troops aided by UN and French forces, and turned over to the ICC in 2011.
Prosecutors maintain Gbagbo clung to power “by all means” and that the long-time leader conspired with Ble Goude to orchestrate a plan to stay in power even before he was narrowly defeated by Ouattara.
Defence lawyers however say the prosecution has failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, despite 82 witnesses testifying, thousands of documents of evidence and hundreds of hours of video.
If the judges indeed decide to free Gbagbo he could soon be following in his wife Simone Gbagbo’s footsteps.
Known as the “Iron Lady”, Simone Gbagbo walked away from a 20-year jail term in August when she was amnestied by Ouattara after seven years in detention.