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Last ditch attempt by prosecutors to keep ex-Ivorian leader in custody

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday made a last ditch attempt to keep ex-Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo in custody, appealing an order for his release after he was acquitted on crimes against humanity charges.

FILE PHOTO: Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo appears before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, January 15, 2019. Peter Dejong/Pool via REUTERS

Judges ruled on Tuesday that prosecutors had failed to prove any case against Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Ble Goude and that their continued detention could no longer be justified. Gbagbo has been in custody for seven years.

But in a late filing, prosecutors asked a higher panel of five appeals judges to overturn a trial chamber ruling on Wednesday that rejected a prosecution attempt to keep them in custody.

If the men are freed “there is a concrete risk that, once released, the accused will not appear for the continuation of the proceedings in this case including the present appeal,” prosecutors wrote.

“Pending the decision of the appeals chamber on this prosecutor’s request ... Mr Gbagbo and Mr Blé Goude shall remain in ICC custody,” court spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said.

A ruling by the appeals judges would follow the filing of written arguments by parties on Thursday, court documents said.

In their decision earlier on Wednesday, the lower court had rejected the prosecution motion to extend custody for any possible appeal by prosecutors, dismissing the case as “exceptionally weak”.

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It is unlikely their acquittals would be overturned by a higher tribunal and the men had assured the court they would return if required, Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said.

Gbagbo hopes to return home to Ivory Coast, his daughter said.

“My father will not live in any other country than Ivory Coast. He would go back and we expect him to go back,” Marie Laurence Gbagbo, told Reuters outside the court.

Marie Laurence Gbagbo declined to comment on the former president’s possible political ambitions, saying: “I can’t speak for my father on this. It is a very delicate question.”

Gbagbo’s acquittal was deplored by victims’ groups representing those who died in violence that killed around 3,000 people during Ivory Coast’s 2010 election, which Gbagbo refused to concede.

Hundreds of thousands fled the unrest that prosecutors blamed on Gbagbo and victims fear his return home could revive hostilities in Abidjan.

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“The defendant’s release may increase tensions,” Paolina Massidda, a legal representative of the victims, said at the court in The Hague.

Despite his victory in The Hague, Gbagbo faces a possible 20-year prison sentence in Ivory Coast based on a conviction in absentia last January for misappropriating funds from the central bank of the eight-nation West African CFA franc zone.

The government has not commented on whether the ruling will be enforced if he were to return.

“I believe that the government is in a new push to reconcile Ivorians and so it’s not the moment to twist the knife in the wound with convictions that are not real convictions,” the lawyer of Gbagbo’s wife, Rodrigue Dadje, told Reuters.

Reporting by Toby Sterling; Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan Writing by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Janet Lawrence