THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Lawyers for Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo argued on Thursday that he should be released without conditions while awaiting the prosecution's appeal against his acquittal at the International Criminal Court.
The ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court, acquitted Gbagbo on crimes against humanity charges in January last year, saying prosecutors had failed to prove any case against him.
He was then conditionally released from detention after more than seven years in custody while prosecutors appealed against his acquittal. He was not allowed to return to Ivory Coast and has to stay in Belgium, whose government has agreed to send him back to the ICC if needed.
"The defence is of the view that in principle no restriction should be placed on a person who has been acquitted," Gbagbo's lawyer Dov Jacobs told the court.
The defence has indicated that Gbagbo would like to return to Ivory Coast and possibly participate in some form in October's presidential election. Gbagbo has not said whether he intends to run again for the presidency.
Ivory Coast's government has submitted arguments to the ICC saying Gbagbo's possible return to the country could cause unrest.
In October last year the ICC prosecutor asked the appeals judges to reverse the acquittal and to declare a mistrial, resetting Gbagbo's legal process.
Prosecution lawyer Reinhold Gallmetzer told judges on Thursday that if a mistrial were granted, the prosecution would seek a new trial for Gbagbo and his co-accused, Charles Ble Goude.
He said the prosecution wants the restrictions on Gbagbo to stay in place because of the flight risk he continues to pose. In fact, Gallmetzer said the risk may have increased since last year as Gbagbo and Ble Goude have both been convicted in the interim to lengthy prison sentences in Ivory Coast.
"If they were released unconditionally (the convictions) could be an incentive for them to go to a country other than Ivory Coast where they would not be extradited to Ivory Coast or the ICC," he warned.
(Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; Editing by Gareth Jones)