(Dakar) – The conviction of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, for serious international crimes, is a vindication of the decades-long campaign waged by his victims, Human Rights Watch said today. Habré was convicted of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including having raped a woman himself, by the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese court system and sentenced to life in prison on May 30, 2016.

“This is an enormous victory for Hissène Habré’s victims, who for 25 years never gave up fighting to bring him to justice” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with the survivors since 1999. “This conviction is a wake-up call to tyrants everywhere that if they engage in atrocities they will never be out of the reach of their victims.”

The trial against Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, began on July 20, 2015. Habré does not recognize the chambers’ authority and sat silently throughout the trial.

A summary of the decision was read out in court by chief judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, who shared the bench with two senior Senegalese judges. The prosecutor had requested a life sentence.

The written decision will be distributed at a later date. Human Rights Watch has prepared an unofficial summary from notes taken in court.

Survivors of Habré's atrocities walk to the court to hear the verdict, May 30, 2016

Habré fled to Senegal in 1990 after being deposed by the current Chadian president, Idriss Déby Itno. Although Habré was first arrested and indicted in Senegal in 2000, it took a long campaign by his victims before the Extraordinary African Chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute international crimes committed in Chad during Habré’s rule.

“I have been waiting for this day since I walked out of prison more than 25 years ago,” said Souleymane Guengueng, who nearly died of mistreatment and disease in Habré’s prisons, and later founded the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH). “Today I feel ten times bigger than Hissène Habré.”

Habré’s trial is the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. Ninety-three witnesses testified at the trial, the majority travelling from Chad to be there. Survivors presented powerful testimony about torture, rape, sexual slavery, mass executions, and the destruction of entire villages.

Notably, the court convicted Habré of sexual crimes, including rape and the sexual slavery of women to serve his army.

The court also found Habré guilty of having raped Khadidja Hassan Zidane on four occasions. The court found Hassan’s testimony credible and supported by an account she gave at the time. It is the first time that an ex-dictator is found personally guilty of rape by an international court.

“Found guilty of sex crimes, including his rape of one woman, Hissène Habré’s conviction signals that no leader is above the law, and that no woman or girl is below it” said Reed Brody.

The chambers will hold a second set of hearings in June or July on damages for the civil parties and other victims.

It appears possible that Habre’s court-appointed lawyers could lodge an appeal without Habre’s consent. If an appeal is lodged, an Extraordinary African Appeals Chamber will be constituted to hear the appeal later this year.

Habre’s trial underscored the importance of universal jurisdiction, Human Rights Watch said. That principle under international law allows national courts to prosecute the most serious crimes even when committed abroad, by a foreigner, and against foreign victims. 

In March 2015, a court in Chad convicted 20 top security agents of Habré’s government on torture and murder charges.

Habré’s one-party rule was marked by widespread atrocities, including waves of ethnic cleansing. Files of Habré’s political police, the Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS), which were 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.

The United States and France viewed Habré as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and so supported him throughout his rule despite clear evidence of his abuses against his own people. Under President Ronald Reagan, the US gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help Habré take power

Habré was first indicted in Senegal in 2000, but after political interference, the country’s courts said that he could not be tried there, so his victims filed a case in Belgium. In September 2005, after four years of investigation, a Belgian judge indicted Habré and Belgium requested his extradition. Senegal refused to send Habré to Belgium, and spent the next three years stalling on a request from the African Union (AU) to prosecute Habré. Belgium then filed a case against Senegal at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On July 20, 2012, that court ordered Senegal to prosecute Habré “without further delay” or to extradite him.

After Macky Sall’s election as president of Senegal in April 2012, Senegal and the AU agreed on a plan to create the Extraordinary African Chambers to conduct the trial within the Senegalese judicial system

The chambers indicted Habré in July 2013 and placed him in pretrial custody. After a 19-month investigation, judges of the chambers found that there was sufficient evidence for Habré to face trial.

After Habré’s lawyers, following his instructions, failed to appear at the opening of the trial in July 2015, the court appointed three Senegalese lawyers to defend him and adjourned for 45 days so they could prepare. The first day back, on September 7, Habré was brought in to the court against his will, kicking and screaming. After that, he was taken into the courtroom for each session before the doors to the public opened.