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Chad's Former Dictator Hissene Habre Found Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

The verdict caps a 16-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, marking the first time that the former head of one African nation has been tried by a court in another country.

by VICE News and Reuters
May 30 2016, 2:40pm

Security personnel surround former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre inside the court in Dakar, Senegal, Monday, July 20, 2015. (Ibrahim Ndiaye/AP)

Former Chad president Hissène Habré was found guilty on Monday of crimes against humanity for ordering the killing and torture of thousands of political opponents during his eight-year, cold war-era rule in the Central African country.

Habré was sentenced to life in prison by the Special African Chamber, a tribunal created in 2013 by Senegal and the African Union. He was also convicted of rape.

The verdict caps a 16-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup. The case also marks the first time that the former head of one African nation has been tried by a court in another country.

"Habré's conviction for these horrific crimes after 25 years is a huge victory for his Chadian victims," Reed Brody, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, who helped investigate Habré's crimes, told Reuters.

"The verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalize their people, pillage their treasury, and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end," he said.

Habré has two weeks to launch an appeal.

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The case centered on whether Habré, feted at the White House in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan after expelling Libyan forces from Chad, ordered the large-scale assassination and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.

Drama surrounded the trial in the early stages, after it was initially suspended in July when Habre's lawyers refused to appear before the special African Union-backed court. Then, in September, Habré had to be carried into court and restrained by masked security guards as charges were read out.

The prosecution pushed for the rape and sexual slavery charges to be added to the docket after the trial was already underway. While not part of the original indictment against the former leader, several women detailed accounts of sexual assault during their testimonies, including one who she had been raped by Habré.

Habré's political career in Chad began in 1971, when he returned to his native country after studying political science in Paris. According to journalist Michael Bronner, who profiled Habré for Foreign Policy in 2014, Habré soon relocated to northern Chad "to build a militia and lay the groundwork for his political future."

In 1979, Habré was appointed defense minister in an interim government formed by Chad's neighbors in an attempt to unite 11 warring Chadian factions ahead of future elections. In 1982, Habré and 2,000 of his fighters took control of Chad's capital, N'Djamena, and declared the founding of the Third Republic of Chad.

Habré ruled with an iron fist from the start, executing prisoners of war and political opponents, and enforcing a violent crackdown on civilians suspected of being opposition sympathizers.

The leader was particularly ruthless with two Chadian ethnic groups — the Hadjerai and Zaghawa. In 1987, he launched a campaign of ethnic violence against the Hadjerai after a military officer from the tribe started an opposition movement against the government. Under Habré's direction, the regime's secret police — the Direction of Documentation and Security or DDS — targeted civilians and dignitaries alike.

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Two years later, the dictator turned his attentions toward the Zaghawa tribe for similar reasons, and again, civilians were targeted. Then, in 1990, forces loyal to current President Idriss Déby captured the capital city N'Djamena, and Habré allegedly fled to Senegal with a share of the national treasury.

A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habre's government of up to 40,000 political murders as well as systematic torture, mostly by the DDS.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandoned DDS headquarters updating Habre on the status of detainees. During the trial, a court handwriting expert confirmed margin notes on one document to be Habre's.

When the victims first brought their case to Senegal in 2000, courts ruled they did not have the authority to try crimes committed in Chad. The African Union later refused to extradite Habré to face trial in Belgium, and asked Senegal to pass legislation giving its courts jurisdiction for foreign crimes.

It was not until President Macky Sall took office in Senegal in 2012 that the process picked up speed, with the creation of the Extraordinary African Tribunal a year later.