DAKAR, Senegal (AP) – Former Chad dictator Hissene Habre was found guilty Monday of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and sex crimes during his rule and he was sentenced to life in prison, ending a trial more than 15 years in the making.
Victims, former prisoners and their relatives broke out into whoops of joy, hugs and tears in the courtroom when ruling was announced by the three-judge panel in the special court in Senegal.
A defiant Habre raised his fist and shouted to his supporters: “Long live independent Africa! Down with France-Africa!”
His wife wept and his backers called him a defender of Africa as the 73-year-old Habre was escorted from court.
He was convicted of being responsible for thousands of deaths and torture in prisons while in power from 1982 to 1990. A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habre’s government of systematic torture, saying 40,000 people died during his rule. It placed particular blame on his police force.
The Extraordinary African Chambers was established by Senegal and the African Union to put Habre on trial for the crimes committed during his rule. It was the first trial in which the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes, and the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial on the continent.
The trial began in July 2015, but victims and survivors have been pursuing the case against their former leader for more than 15 years. Over 90 witnesses testified.
Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam, speaking for the panel, said evidence showed Habre was directly responsible, having given the orders for imprisonment and torture, and having also committed some of the crimes himself.
Habre has 15 days to appeal, and his lawyer, Mounir Ballal, said he will do so.
“We are surprised by the verdict, especially the severity of the verdict,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the conviction, calling it “a landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities.”
He also said it was “an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad.” The U.S. and France were supporters of Habre when he was in power.
Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has been involved in the case, said it was “a huge victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity this trial never would have happened.”
“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,” Brody said.
“Habre’s conviction signals that no leader is above the law, and that no woman or girl is below it … This is the first time in history that a former head of state has been convicted in an international trial of personally committing rape,” he said.
The accusations of rape came out during witness testimony at the trial.
Clement Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of the Hissene Habre Regime and a former prisoner who was forced to bury dead prisoners, called it a “consecration of justice here in Africa.”
“There must not be any more leaders like Hissene Habre in Africa or elsewhere. Because in fact, the elected leaders are there to represent people, to be for the people, not to kill the people, violate the people or steal from the country. So I must say, here in Africa and elsewhere, never again,” he said.
Souleymane Guengueng, who began collecting accounts of survivors after being released from prison in 1990, expressed “joy and satisfaction for this victory.”
“This is a lesson for other victims and dictators in the world,” he said.
A second set of hearings to determine damages for the more than 4,000 registered civil parties will take place in the coming days.
Habre, who has lived a life of luxury in Senegal’s capital of Dakar since fleeing Chad in 1990, had called the trial politically motivated. He refused legal representation, but the court appointed him Senegalese lawyers.
He and his supporters disrupted proceedings several times with shouting and singing.
Chad’s current government, led by President Idriss Deby, who served as Habre’s military adviser before pushing him from power, supported the trial.
Habre’s son, Bechir, had harsh words for Deby before the verdict.
“Someone dies every day in Chad. There is a man responsible, Idriss Deby. He must respond. He is responsible for this,” Bechir Habre told The Associated Press, gesturing to the group of victims.
Over the years, many of those who had been jailed by Habre’s government or lost family members campaigned for his prosecution.
Habre was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, but legal twists and turns over a decade saw the case go to Belgium and then finally back to Senegal after unwavering pursuit by the survivors. The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, cannot prosecute crimes committed before it was established in 2002.
In 2001, the archives of Habre’s police force were found in its headquarters in Chad. The records dated to Habre’s rule and mentioned more than 12,000 victims of Chad’s detention network. Many of the records bore his signature, prosecutors said.