In a landmark case for African justice, a former dictator of Chad has been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for atrocities including murder, torture and rape.
Hissene Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, remained expressionless behind sunglasses and a white turban as the judges read the guilty verdict in a courtroom in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Many of his victims cheered, hugged and cried.
It was the first victory for the principal of “universal jurisdiction” for international crimes in an African court. The horrific crimes were committed in Chad, but the trial was held in Senegal with the support of the African Union.
The trial is seen as a potential model for future justice in Africa, where dictators and warlords have often escaped justice. A handful of African cases have been taken to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but many Africans see the ICC as a Western-dominated institution that doesn’t provide fairness to Africa.
Despite long delays in the case while Mr. Habré lived freely for two decades in a luxurious villa in a Dakar suburb, the trial finally brought justice for the victims of the ex-dictator, whose regime killed an estimated 40,000 people and tortured 200,000.
“Today will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice,” said Reed Brody, a Human Rights Watch activist who has been working to help the Chadian victims for the past 17 years.
“Habré’s conviction for these horrific crimes after 25 years is a huge victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity this trial never would have happened,” he said in a statement.
“This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalize their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end.”
The historic trial, which began last September, heard testimony from 69 victims, 23 witnesses and 10 expert witnesses.
“It demonstrates that when there is enough political will, states can work together effectively to end impunity in even the most entrenched situations,” said a statement by Gaetan Mootoo, a West Africa researcher for Amnesty International.
“It is moments like these that other victims around the world can draw on in darker times when justice appears beyond reach. It will nourish them with hope and give them strength to fight for what is right. This landmark decision should also provide impetus to the African Union or individual African states to replicate such efforts to deliver justice in other countries in the continent.”
Mr. Habré refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction. On the first day of the trial, he had to be dragged into the courtroom by policemen as he struggled and screamed furiously. He tried to disrupt the reading of the indictment, shouting “lies” and “shut up, shut up” as the charges were read.
But he remained silent during the verdict on Monday, gesturing briefly to his supporters as he was led away. His victims, who had waited three decades for justice, cheered jubilantly and flung their arms in the air when the verdict was given.
The special court, led by a judge from Burkina Faso, found that Mr. Habré was guilty of crimes against humanity, both personally and as the commander of those who killed and tortured. He was also found guilty of raping a female detainee, Khadidja Hassan, who testified in court about the rape.