Chad's former dictator handed life sentence for war crimes, torture

Hissene Habre, who led the country from 1982 to 1990, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday. Rights groups believe his regime may have killed 40,000. 

Carley Petesch/ AP
Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre raises his hand during court proceedings in Dakar, Senegal, on Monday, May 30, 2016. In a packed courtroom, Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam declared Habre guilty and sentenced him to life in prison for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture.

Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for abuses during his time in power, Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam said Monday at the end of the trial that began in July 2015.

Whoops of joy and tears greeted the judge's ruling from scores of Habre's prisoners and their supporters who hugged each other in the courtroom.

On the other hand, Habre's supporters cheered him as he walked calmly out of court surrounded by heavy security. He extended his hands to his supporters and then pumped his fist in the air as they shouted and clapped for him.

Habre was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, including sex crimes and the rape of a woman.

Habre was convicted of being responsible for thousands of deaths and tortures in prisons during his rule from 1982 to 1990. A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habre's government of systematic torture, saying that 40,000 people died during his rule. It placed particular blame on his political police force.

"Habre'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. 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," said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch who has been involved in the case for more than 15 years.

"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.

Habre's trial by the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese courts began in July last year. It is the first trial in which the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. More than 90 witnesses testified.

Habre's lawyer Mounir Ballal said he will appeal the verdict. He has 15 days.

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 in Senegal's capital, Dakar, since fleeing Chad in 1990, has denounced his trial as politically motivated. He and his supporters disrupted proceedings several times with shouting and singing. He refused legal representation but the court appointed him Senegalese lawyers.

Chad's current government, led by President Idriss Deby, who served as Habre's military adviser before pushing him from power, supported the trial.

The trial of Habre was forged by many of those who had been jailed by Habre's government or lost family members, and who campaigned for his prosecution for more than 15 years.

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.

In 2001, the police force's archives were discovered on the floor of its headquarters in Chad, records which went back to Habre's rule and mention more than 12,000 victims of Chad's detention network.

The extraordinary court was formed by Senegal and the African Union to try Habre for the crimes that took place during his rule.

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