A court has sentenced former Chadian president Hissène Habré, known as Africa’s Pinochet, to life imprisonment for murder, torture, rape and crimes against humanity committed during his eight-year regime.
Human rights campaigners have hailed the conviction as a precedent-setting warning to other dictators who trample on their citizens with apparent impunity.
At present in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza has forced through a third term in office and his regime is the subject of widespread accusations that it is jailing, torturing and killing opponents to his continued rule.
Mr Habré, 73, is a former rebel leader who took power by force in Chad in 1982 and was then supported by the US and France to remain at the helm as a bulwark to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
He has been living in luxurious exile with his wife and family in Senegal since he was topped from power by Chad’s now president in 1990. He was found guilty by a court in the neighbouring country of personally raping his citizens, imprisoning them in his presidential palace and an underground jail and issuing direct orders to his security services to torture and kill them.
The conviction was the culmination of a 10-month trial which saw 69 of his victims give evidence against him along with former members of his secret police, handwriting experts who confirmed he signed orders to kill and maim, and human rights investigators.
Investigators found that at least 40,000 people were killed and 200,000 were tortured during his rule, which was marked by fierce repression of opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups.
The trial, at the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal’s capital Dakar, was created in 2013 under an agreement with the African Union and represents the first time the courts of one country have prosecuted the former leader of another for alleged human rights crimes.
It also represents Africa’s attempt to build its own system of continent-wide justice amid criticism that The Hague-based International Criminal Court has unfairly targeted African leaders. Mr Habré refused to address the 10-month trial but was forced to attend by force while his lawyers boycotted.
After an initial outburst when he was brought before the court, Mr Habré was compelled by force to attend the hearings and remained mute until the judgement was read out, when he shouted “Down with France-afrique!” before being bundled away.
Survivors of his atrocities who crammed into the court to hear the result responded with shouts of “we won! We won!” before streaming out into the streets where they blocked traffic as they danced and sang. Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has spent the last 15 years working with victims to bring the former president to justice, said the conviction was a warning to other despots.
“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,” he said. “Today will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice.”
Clement Abeifouta, president of a Habre survivors association, said reaction to the verdict was one of “complete satisfaction”. “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 said.