African dictator who killed up to 40,000 gets life sentence

Habre, former president of Chad from 1982-1990, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and many other charges.
Habre, former president of Chad from 1982-1990, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and many other charges.

DAKAR • A special court in Senegal sentenced former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to life in prison yesterday for war crimes, crimes against humanity and a litany of other charges, including rape.

The verdict brings a long-awaited reckoning to families of the up to 40,000 people killed and the many kidnapped, raped or tortured under his 1982-1990 rule as president of Chad.

"Hissene Habre, this court finds you guilty of crimes against humanity, rape, forced slavery, and kidnapping," as well as war crimes, said Mr Gberdao Gustave Kam, the Burkinabe president of the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) court. "The court condemns you to life in prison," Mr Kam added, giving Habre 15 days to appeal the sentence.

Habre raised his arms in the air on hearing the verdict, shouting "Down with France-afrique!", referring to the term used for France's continuing influence on its former colonies.

He declined to address the court throughout the 10-month trial, refusing to recognise its authority.

Victims groups who had travelled to Dakar to hear the verdict were visibly moved by a judgment that comes a quarter-century after the abuses they suffered. "The feeling is one of complete satisfaction," said Mr Clement Abeifouta, the president of a Habre survivors association.

"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 added.

The case was heard by the CAE special tribunal set up by the African Union under a deal with Senegal, and is the first time a country has prosecuted a former leader of another nation for rights abuses.

Witnesses recounted the horror of Chad's prisons, describing in graphic detail abusive and often deadly punishments inflicted by Habre's feared secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).

Victims were subject to electric shocks and waterboarding while some had gas sprayed in their eyes or spice rubbed into their genitals, the court heard.

Habre's defence team unsuccessfully sought to cast doubt on the prosecution argument that their client was an all-knowing, all-powerful head of the DDS, suggesting he may have been unaware of abuses on the ground.

Known as a skilled desert warrior who often wore combat fatigues to fit the role, Habre fled to Senegal after his 1990 ouster by Chad's current President, Mr Idriss Deby.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2016, with the headline 'African dictator who killed up to 40,000 gets life sentence'. Print Edition | Subscribe