Families of tortured victims embraced and cheered inside a courtroom in Senegal on May 30, 2016, as Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, was sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, torture, rape, sexual slavery and ordered killings.
It was the first time an African Union-backed court had tried a former ruler for human-rights abuses. The Habré case became a pivotal, door-opening moment in the fight to bring more of the continent’s war criminals to justice.
Habré seized power from Goukouni Oueddei in 1982. Chad was at war with Libya over the Aozou Strip, a giant slice of the Sahara desert on the two countries’ shared border, and the distraction provided Habré with the opportunity to attempt a coup, which was believed to have CIA and French backing.
Once in power, his cruelty became apparent and his secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), became known for their violence. People walked the streets in constant fear, as they saw family and friends hauled off to torture chambers. Any ethnic group seen as being opposed to Habré was targeted and its members tortured.
It is said that 40,000 were murdered and 200,000 were tortured in Chad while Habré was in power.
Witnesses said victims endured electric shocks, suffocation, cigarette burns and having gas squirted into their eyes. Some said the torturers would place a running vehicle’s exhaust pipe into their victims’ mouths. Others said they had been suspended by their hands or feet and had their hands and feet bound together. In some more extreme cases of torture, some victims had their heads crushed between two wooden boards, and were placed in rooms with decomposing bodies.
Habré’s reign of terror was brought to an end when he was ousted in 1990. After his fall, the path to justice was arduous and thorny, as the barbarous dictator fled to Senegal. When victims pushed for a trial, the Senegalese court refused, claiming it did not have the jurisdiction. His victims, looking for any way to due process, turned to Belgium for help trying Habré. At the time, Belgium had a “universal jurisdiction” law that allowed prosecution of the worst atrocities in any country, according to Human Rights Watch, an abuse watchdog group. Also, several of the plaintiffs were Belgian. After a four-year investigation, and many years after the crimes, a Belgian judge issued an international warrant for his arrest.
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade changed his position several times on whether to try Habré. In 2011, Wade finally reached a decision: Habré would be sent to Chad for a trial. However, fearing the former dictator would face torture if returned to the place he’d terrorized for eight long years, the United Nations intervened. In July 2012, the International Court of Justice ordered Senegal to either put Habré on trial or extradite him to Belgium.
A month later, Senegal and the African Union signed a deal to set up a special court for the trial. The Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) was created to handle the trial, and it finally got underway in 2015. More than 100 witnesses, including 69 victims and 10 experts, took the stand to testify against Habré. On May 30, after a 17-year battle, Habré was found guilty and sentenced to life. Although an appeal was filed on his behalf, it was denied. Habré would serve a life sentence, and officials established a $136 million trust fund for the victims who had fought for years to bring him to justice.
“This will be a lesson to other dictators in Africa,” Yamasoum Konar, a representative of one of the victims’ groups, told the BBC.