Former Chad dictator Hissène Habré was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and sex crimes on Monday and was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Senegal. It is a landmark case as it is the first time in history that the courts of one country have prosecuted a former leader of another on charges of human rights violations. It is also the first time one African nation has tried the former ruler of another for charges of political killings, rape and torture, committed both personally and through third party agents.
“This conviction is a wake-up call to tyrants everywhere that if they engage in atrocities they will never be out of the reach of their victims,” a spokesman for Human Rights Watch said.
Habré controlled the African nation of Chad from 1982 to 1990. It is estimated 40,000 people were killed and many thousands more were tortured during that time. A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s police force of being the principal conductor of these crimes. Dozens of survivors testified during the trial, which went on for months. According to Human Rights Watch about 4,500 people were named as civil parties in the case.
The verdict was greeted with cheers of joy from victims and former prisoners.
“I have been waiting for this day since I walked out of prison more than 25 years ago,” said Souleymane Guengueng, one of Habré’s victims. “Today I feel ten times bigger than Hissène Habré.”
“Habré’s conviction signals that no leader is above the law, and that no woman or girl is below it” said, Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has been involved in the case. He called the verdict “a huge victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity this trial never would have happened.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry also praised the conclusion of the trial, calling it “a landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities.”
Mounir Ballal, Habré’s attorney, says he intends to appeal the decision.
“We are surprised by the verdict, especially the severity of the verdict,” he said.