A special court in Senegal sentenced former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to life in jail Monday for war crimes and crimes against humanity, an unprecedented conviction seen as a warning to repressive rulers worldwide.The verdict brings a long-awaited reckoning to relatives of the up to 40,000 people killed and many more kidnapped, raped or tortured during his 1982-1990 term as president of Chad.
Habre was guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape, forced slavery and kidnapping, said the president of the court Gberdao Gustave Kam, sentencing him to life in jail.
The 73-year-old once nicknamed “desert fighter” had presided over “a system where impunity and terror were the law,” Kam said, face-to-face with the onetime leader in his trademark billowing white robes and sunglasses.
Habre raised his arms into the air on hearing the decision and shouted “Down with France-afrique!”, referring to the term used for France’s continuing influence on its former colonies.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the verdict showed “nobody is above the law” at a time when the world is “scarred by a constant stream of atrocities.”
The former leader has two weeks to appeal the sentence.
Victims groups who had travelled to Dakar to hear the verdict were visibly moved by a judgement that comes a quarter century after the abuses they suffered.
“The feeling is one of complete satisfaction,” said Clement Abaifouta, president of the Habre survivors association known by the acronym AVCRHH.
“It’s the crowning achievement of a long and hard fight against impunity. Today Africa has won. We say thank you to Senegal and to Africa for judging Africa,” he added.
The case was heard by the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE), a special tribunal set up by the African Union under a deal with Senegal, and is the first time a country has prosecuted a former leader of another nation for rights abuses.
In the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, up to 250 victims and their supporters gathered to watch the trial on television at their group’s headquarters.
Women screamed with joy as the verdict was read out, embracing one another and shouting “We won!”, before taking to the streets and blocking traffic as they spread the news.
“This is a victory for the Chadian people against impunity and injustice, never again,” said Jean Noyama, a local leader of the AVCRHH.
– ‘A powerful message’ –
The precedent set by the verdict could be seismic, according to legal experts, especially after years of criticism that the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, has tried African leaders many say should be judged on the continent.
Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has spent the last 15 years working with victims to bring Habre to justice, said the conviction was a warning.
“This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalise their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end,” Reed said in a statement.
“Today will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice.”
Amnesty International West Africa researcher Gaetan Mootoo said the verdict would serve as a guiding light for those living in repressive regimes around the world.
“It is moments like these that other victims around the world can draw on in darker times when justice appears beyond reach,” Mootoo said in a statement.
Known as a skilled desert warrior often dressed in combat fatigues to fit the role, Habre fled to Senegal after his 1990 ouster by Chad’s current President Idriss Deby.
Witnesses recounted the horror of life in Chad’s prisons, describing in graphic detail abusive and often deadly punishments inflicted by Habre’s feared secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Victims were subject to electric shocks and waterboarding while some had gas sprayed in their eyes or spice rubbed into their genitals, the court heard.
– Inadequate defence –
Habre’s defence team unsuccessfully sought to cast doubt on the prosecution argument that their client was an all-knowing, all-powerful head of the DDS, suggesting he may have been unaware of abuses on the ground.
For more than 20 years, the former dictator lived freely in an upmarket Dakar suburb with his wife and children, swapping his military garb for white robes and a cap.
He declined to address the court throughout the 10-month trial, refusing to recognise its authority.
“What we have seen today is not justice. It is a crime against Africa,” said Mahamat Togoi, part of a Habre supporters group. “It’s the dirty work of mercenaries in the pay of France-afrique.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry called the verdict a “landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity,” in a statement released Friday.