February 1, 2019 / 12:50 PM / 18 days ago

CORRECTED-Lawyers wrangle over release of Ivory Coast politician Gbagbo

(Corrects acquittal date in 4th paragraph to Jan 15)

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Prosecutors and defence lawyers fought on Friday over terms of release for former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, after he was acquitted on atrocities charges at the International Criminal Court last month.

ICC prosecutors, who contest the acquittal, are mounting a last-ditch attempt to have conditions attached to the release of Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Ble Goude, to ensure they will return to the court if necessary.

Their defence lawyers meanwhile demanded that both men be immediately and unconditionally released.

Trial judges ordered that Gbagbo, the first former head of state to be taken into custody by the ICC, and Ble Goude be freed after their acquittal on Jan. 15. But two days later appeals judges ruled that the men should remain in detention while they consider arguments from prosecutors who have said they will appeal the acquittal.

Prosecutor Helen Brady told appeals judges on Friday that her office was ready to look for a “a less liberty-intrusive” option than continued detention to ensure Gbagbo’s later return.

She said that could mean allowing him to travel to a state close to the Netherlands that supports the international court and is willing to give promises he would be returned if necessary.

After the close of oral arguments, appeals judges were meeting in closed session to discuss what country Gbagbo might go to, and when.

Gbagbo’s family has said he would ultimately like to return to Ivory Coast but have indicated he may first go to Belgium, where he has relatives.

Any return to his homeland would be complicated by the fact that he was handed a 20-year sentence there for embezzlement, after a trial in absentia, in January 2018.

Gbagbo, who ruled Ivory Coast from 2000-2011, has spent seven years in custody in The Hague.

Judges at the trial said the prosecution case linking Gbagbo to election-related violence in 2010 and 2011 in which some 3,000 people were killed was “exceptionally weak” and that it was unlikely the acquittals would be overturned.

But the appeals chamber was willing to hear prosecution arguments that Gbagbo might not return for future court hearings if he were set free.

Gbagbo’s acquittal was deplored by victims’ groups representing those who died in violence during the 2010 election, in which Gbagbo refused to concede defeat his rival Alassane Ouattara.

Hundreds of thousands fled the unrest that prosecutors blamed on Gbagbo and victims fear his return home could revive hostilities in Abidjan. (Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Writing by Toby Sterling; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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