A special court in Senegal has sentenced former Chadian military ruler Hissene Habre to life in prison after convicting him of crimes against humanity, torture and sexual slavery.
The verdict on Monday caps a 16-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former leader to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup in the central African nation.
“Hissene Habre, this court finds you guilty of crimes against humanity, rape, forced slavery, and kidnapping,” as well as war crimes, said Gberdao Gustave Kam, Burkinabe president of the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) court.
“The court condemns you to life in prison,” Kam added, giving Habre 15 days to appeal the sentence.
Habre raised his arms into 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.
Human rights groups accuse the 72-year-old of being responsible for the deaths of 40,000 people during his rule from 1982 to 1990.
Habre’s case was heard by the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, a special criminal court set up by the African Union within the West African nation’s court system.
Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has spent the last 15 years working with victims to bring Habre to justice, said the landmark case could encourage others to bring similar action.
“The trial of Hissene Habre shows that it is possible for victims, with tenacity and perseverance, to bring their dictator to court,” Reed told the AFP news agency on Sunday.
“We hope that other survivors, other activists will be inspired by what Habre’s victims have been able to do.”
Victims groups who had travelled to Dakar to hear the verdict were visibly moved by a judgement that comes a quarter century after the abuses they suffered.
“The feeling is one of complete satisfaction,” said Clement Abeifouta, president of a Habre survivors association.
Habre refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court and had to be physically dragged into the courtroom in July.
After living in exile in Senegal for 22 years, Habre was detained in Dakar in July 2013, less than 72 hours after US President Barack Obama expressed his support for a trial during a visit to Senegal.