THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — International Criminal Court judges delayed a decision Monday on whether to put former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on trial for alleged involvement in deadly post-election violence, telling prosecutors to beef up their case.
The ruling in the case of the first former head of state taken into custody by the court was another blow to prosecutors, who in recent months have seen a Congolese suspect acquitted and had to drop charges against a senior Kenyan official due to lack of evidence.
Judges criticized evidence presented by prosecutors at a hearing earlier this year to establish whether their case was strong enough to merit putting Gbagbo on trial.
In a majority decision, the three-judge panel said prosecutors "relied heavily on NGO reports and press articles" to underpin parts of their case and noted that such evidence "cannot in any way be presented as the fruits of a full and proper investigation by the Prosecutor."
The written ruling said the majority considered that the evidence, "although apparently insufficient, does not appear to be so lacking in relevance and probative value that it leaves the Chamber with no choice but to decline to confirm the charges."
The ruling underscored how hard it is for prosecutors to gather evidence in African nations thousands of kilometers (miles) from the court's headquarters in The Hague and that the court's judges will not send cases to trial unless they believe there is enough evidence to support the charges.
"The judges' request for additional evidence is a reminder that the confirmation of charges is not just a rubber-stamp of the ICC prosecutor's case," Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement. "This highlights the urgent need for the prosecutor's office to improve the way it builds its cases."
Pascal Turlan, of the court's prosecution office, said prosecutors were studying the ruling and were considering whether to appeal or to provide more information as requested.
Gbagbo is the first former head of state to appear at ICC and prosecutors charge that he is responsible for murders, rapes and arbitrary detention of supporters of his political rival — and now president — Alassane Ouattara in the aftermath of 2010 elections.
Gbagbo, who is charged as an "indirect co-perpetrator" in the violence, insists he is innocent. His lawyer told judges at a hearing in February that prosecutors want to make him a scapegoat for the post-election violence.
Lawyer Emmanuel Altit claimed that prosecutors are focused solely on Gbagbo and ignoring the role of his rival, President Ouattara.
Prosecutors say some 3,000 people died in violence by supporters of both Ouattara and Gbagbo in five months of violence after the 2010 Ivory Coast election and a tense standoff that ensued when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat.
He was arrested in Ivory Coast in April 2011 by forces loyal to Ouattara and extradited to The Hague eight months later. Prosecutors also have filed similar charges against Gbagbo's wife, Simone Gbagbo, who has not yet been surrendered to the court.
Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front political party called for him to be granted provisional release in light of the decision, which sets back the case by months. Defense lawyers were given until Feb. 7 next year to file their final written comments before judges reconsider whether to send Gbagbo to trial.
Seri Gouagnon, the party's national secretary for liberty and justice, said the finding confirmed suspicions the party had all along about the quality of the evidence.
"We have long said the charges were not sufficient. We think the prosecutor and the court must respect the consequences of this decision," he said. "If they keep him in detention, then it means the justice process is not following a logical path. If you don't have sufficient proof against someone, then you need to let him free."
AP writer Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this story.