Judges ordered the immediate release of the 73-year-old deposed strongman, the first head of state to stand trial at the troubled ICC, and his former youth leader Charles Ble Goude, 47.
Gbagbo faced charges of crimes against humanity over the 2010-2011 bloodshed following a disputed vote the West African nation in which around 3,000 people were killed.
Prosecutors said Gbagbo clung to power “by all means” after he was narrowly defeated by his bitter rival — now president — Alassane Ouattara in elections in the world’s largest cocoa producer.
But head judge Cuno Tarfusser said that the court “by majority hereby decides that the prosecution has failed to satisfy the burden of proof to the requisite standard.”
He added that the court “grants the defence motions for acquittal for all charges for Mr Laurent Gbagbo and Mr Charles Ble Goude and orders the immediate release of both accused.”
Gbagbo, who has spent seven years in detention, and Ble Goude hugged each other after the decision was handed down.
Supporters started cheering, clapping and crying in the public gallery of the court, prompting the judge to order them to sit down and “behave”.
– ‘Victory for justice’ –
“I am very, very happy. Finally there is some justice,” Gragbayou Yves, 45, a Gbagbo supporter from Paris, told AFP in the public gallery moments after the judgment was passed.
Wild scenes also erupted in Gbagbo’s home town in the Ivory Coast, Gagnoa, with hundreds of supporters shouting “free, free” and dancing in the streets after watching the decision live on television.
“I’m happy. He did nothing wrong yet he’s spent seven years in prison. It’s important that he should be free, he’s our leader,” said supporter Bertin Sery.
In Abidjan, Assoa Adou, secretary general of Gbagbo’s party the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), predicted the acquittal would ease political tensions rather than exacerbate them.
“We have just made a big step towards reconciliation,” Adou said, amid a jubilant crowd at party headquarters. “Ivory Coast will soon be in peace.”
Gbagbo was captured by Ouattara’s troops, who were being aided by UN and French forces, and sent to The Hague November 2011, and his trial started in January 2016.
But the judges on Tuesday said prosecutors had failed to show there was evidence of a “common plan” to keep Gbagbo in power, a policy of attacking civilians, or that speeches by Gbagbo and Ble Goude incited violence.
Their release was suspended until a fresh hearing on Wednesday to give the prosecution time to respond to the shock judgment.
Gbagbo’s lawyers last year argued that his case had descended into “fake reality” and should be dismissed, adding that he was now “elderly and fragile”.
“This is a victory for justice,” Gbagbo’s lawyer Emmanuel Altit told a press conference after Tuesday’s decision.
“It’s also a victory for the ICC, as the judges have shown their professionalism and independence.”
– ‘Bitterly bruised’ –
But the highly divisive case has tested the court’s avowed aim of delivering justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes since its establishment in 2002.
The ICC has faced serious difficulties over attempts at to try top politicians for crimes committed by subordinates or followers — most of them in Africa.
Last year, former DR Congo warlord and ex-vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba was acquitted on appeal for crimes allegedly committed by his militia in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also saw charges of crimes against humanity over electoral bloodshed dropped by the ICC’s prosecutor in 2014.
The Gbagbo result leaves the court “bitterly bruised”, said international law expert Mark Kersten of the University of Toronto.
“It leaves serious questions about the ability of the ICC to successfully target and prosecute state actors,” he told AFP. “It must learn from these trials and errors to be better — and meet expectations — in the very near future.”
Gbagbo acquittal also means he follows in the footsteps of his wife Simone Gbagbo.
The so-called Iron Lady walked away from a 20-year jail term in Ivory Coast in August when she was granted an amnesty by Ouattara after seven years in detention.