Habré, whose eight-year reign of terror and political repression had led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Chadians, was unrepentant. His only words in the Senegalese courtroom were a reference to France’s influence over its former colonies: “Down with Francafrique.” It was a truly extraordinary moment. On Monday, Hissène Habré, Chad’s former dictator, hid his face behind sunglasses as he listened to the verdict of an African court sentencing him to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, torture and sex crimes.
The trial of Habré has been an event without precedent. Its outcome is a watershed for human rights justice in Africa and beyond. Not surprisingly, survivors and families of victims wept with joy in the court. The verdict was an extraordinary moment for African human rights and civil society groups alike, who had campaigned tirelessly for more than 20 years, in their fight against one man’s claim of impunity.
The proceedings in Dakar, the capital of the country to which Habré fled after being ousted in 1990 and in which he lived in luxurious exile, took years to establish. After much hard bargaining, they resulted in the first time an African country has prosecuted the former leader of another African country for massive human rights abuses. In the trial, which began last July, Habré eventually faced a special tribunal created for the case by the African Union under a deal with Senegal. That very fact, the setting up of the Extraordinary African Chambers, was a notable achievement.
Mr Habré ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. During that time tens of thousands of Chadians, deemed enemies of the Habré regime, were imprisoned and tortured. Evidence heard by the special court included horrific descriptions of how prisoners had their limbs attached behind their backs, and victims’ bodies were thrown into mass graves. Habré’s direct responsibility was beyond question. One woman described how he himself had raped her, a crime for which Habré was also convicted this week.
The trial could never have happened without the perseverance of survivors of Habré’s brutal regime and of African activists, working alongside international human rights organisations. For years they had sought justice, including through Belgian courts; but they kept running up against obstacles and, at times, intimidation. In the end it was only a change of political leadership in Senegal that made prosecution in that country possible. The fact that the trial was held with the support of the African Union was another a turning point. Generally critical of international courts which it has often denounced as a western endeavour targeting mainly African officials and warlords, the African Union in the end relented. The trigger was a UN court order to Senegal to try Habré or extradite him for trial elsewhere.
Many questions still remain unanswered, including several concerning the responsibility or complicity of western countries, such as France and the US, which actively supported Habré during the cold war years, turning a blind eye to his methods. Nevertheless, the trial brought the victims a long awaited moment of truth. This week’s verdict was the only way to bring closure. It sends a strong message to dictators everywhere. Africa has now set an example that others should follow.