Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre is escorted by military officers after being heard by judge in Dakar, Senegal on July 2, 2013.

(N’Djaména) – The torture conviction in Chad on March 25 of 20 top security agents of the 1982-1990 Hissène Habré dictatorship is a victory for justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The criminal court acquitted four others and ordered that the Chadian government and the convicted persons pay US$125 million in reparations to over 7,000 victims.

Among those convicted to life sentences were Saleh Younous, former head of the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), Habré’s political police, and Mahamat Djibrine described as one of the “most feared torturers in Chad” by a 1992 Chadian Truth Commission. Both men were also wanted by a court in Senegal trying Hissène Habré, but Chad declined to transfer them.

“Twenty-four years after the end of the Habré dictatorship, and fourteen years after the survivors filed their complaints, today’s convictions and the order of reparations are a stunning victory for Hissène Habré’s victims,” said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, who has worked with Habré’s victims since 1999 and observed the proceedings. “The sentencing of state officials for human rights crimes is not only a testament to the courage and tenacity of the victims, it is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has been the norm.”

Habré’s government is accused of thousands of political killings and widespread torture.

Five of the accused were sentenced to hard labor for life. In practice, hard labor is not used and generally signifies imprisonment. The prosecutor had requested 16 condemnations and 7 acquittals against the 23 accused.

The decision read out by court president Timothée Yénan also ordered that 75 billion CFA francs (approximately US$ 125 million) in reparations be paid in compensation to 7,000 victims who were plaintiffs in the case. Half is to be paid out of the defendants’ assets and half is to be paid by the Chadian government, which was found to be liable for the defendants’ actions.

The court also ordered that the government within a year erect a monument to those who were killed under Habré and that the former DDS headquarters be turned into a museum. These were both among the long-standing demands of the victims’ associations.

At the trial, which began on November 14, 2014, but was twice suspended because of an unrelated lawyers’ strike, about 50 victims described their torture and mistreatment at the hands of agents of the DDS and other Habré-era security agencies.

The trial in Chad ends as the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special chamber created by the African Union and Senegal in an appeal court in Dakar, Senegal, prepares to hear the case against Hissène Habré. That court indicted and arrested Habré in July 2013 and on February 13, 2015, four investigating judges decided that there was sufficient evidence to send him to a trial which is scheduled to begin in Senegal in a few months.

The defendants on trial in N’Djaména were accused of murder, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and assault and battery. Hundreds of Chadians attended the trial each day, which was summarized each evening on the national television news. Although the charges leading to the trial were filed by survivors in 2000, the case in Chad languished until after Habré himself was arrested in Dakar in 2013. Many of the accused were holding key positions in the Chadian administration until they were arrested in 2013 and 2014.

Others convicted include Nodjigoto Haunan, former director of the National Security Agency (Sureté nationale), implicated in the repression against the Zaghawa ethnic group, and Khalil Djibrine, former department head of the DDS in the south of Chad during the repression there of 1983-1984. A full list of those convicted and acquitted can be found here.

The victims’ leaders expressed joy at the decision.

“Finally, finally, the men who brutalized us and then laughed in our faces for decades have got their comeuppance,” said Clément Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré, who as a prisoner under Habré was forced to dig graves for many of his fellow inmates. “The government now needs to implement the decision so the victims at long last receive reparations for what they suffered and that steps are taken to remember what happened to us.”

Habre’s one-party rule was marked by widespread atrocities, including the targeting of certain ethnic groups. DDS files recovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001 reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. Habré was deposed in 1990 by the current president, Idriss Déby Itno. Habré fled to Senegal and lived there in exile. He was indicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers in July 2013 and placed in pretrial detention.