International Criminal Court judges on Tuesday acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of all war crimes charges and ordered his immediate release.
Presiding Judge Cuno Tarfusser said that prosecutors failed to prove their case and Gbagbo and co-defendant Charles Blé Goudé, a close ally and former political youth leader, should be set free.
Gbagbo faced four counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts during post-electoral violence in Ivory Coast between December 2010 and April 2011, when Gbagbo refused to accept defeat by rival Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo's lawyers had accused prosecutors of "inventing another reality" to fit the charges and said security forces under Gbagbo had merely defended themselves against rebel attacks.
Legal experts had noted that during the trial, prosecutors presented a lot of evidence that crimes occurred, but few witnesses could link the ex-Ivory Coast leader directly.
"The prosecutor had a lot of insider witnesses, but if you look at their actual testimony it seems like many were afraid to implicate themselves," said Thijs Bouwknegt, an Amsterdam University researcher on genocide.
"A real link between the former president and the alleged crimes is hard to make."
The acquittal is seen as a major setback for the prosecution, stung by defeats in cases against Jean-Pierre Bemba, the Congolese ex-vice president released in June after his war crimes conviction was overturned, and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had charges against him dropped in 2015.
A collapse of the case against Gbagbo, the first former head of state to stand trial at the ICC who has been in custody since November 2011, bolsters opponents questioning its effectiveness after only three war crimes convictions in 15 years.