UNITED NATIONS – UN officials, diplomats and human rights advocates praised the life sentence meted out Monday to former Chadian President Hissène Habré, found guilty of crimes that include sexual slavery, homicide and kidnappings during his 8-year, iron-fisted rule.
“The delivery of this judgment marks a historic day for the people of Chad, the region and beyond, as well as for international criminal justice,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement delivered by a spokesman at headquarters in Manhattan. “The judgment sends a strong signal to those who would perpetrate serious crimes of international concern, including those at the highest echelons of political power, that they will be held accountable for their actions.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said she welcomed the decision of the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese Courts, which tried Habre.
“At long last, the people of Chad have received a measure of overdue justice for Habré’s eight-year rule of murder, torture and rape, during which an estimated 40,000 people were killed,” Power said in a statement. “I congratulate the people of Chad whose dogged, decades-long pursuit of justice made this day possible.”
Chad’s ambassador to the UN could not be reached for comment.
The judgment was seen as striking a blow against a measure of impunity that autocratic heads of state have enjoyed despite presiding over atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity that draw condemnation from the international community.
The trial, which began in July, was conducted in Dakar and relied on testimony from 69 victims, 23 witnesses and 10 expert witnesses, experts said.
“It represents an important milestone for international criminal justice in Africa and holding former heads of state to account for sexual violence crimes through the use of universal jurisdiction,” said Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. “It will certainly act as deterrence for further mass atrocity crimes in the region.”
Amnesty International West African researcher Gaetan Mootoo said the trial covered actions committed between 1982 and 1990, adding that Habre was found to have personally committed rapes.
“This verdict is a victory for those victims who fought tirelessly to ensure Hissène Habré could not get away with crimes under international law,” Mootoo said. “It demonstrates that when there is enough political will states can work together effectively to end impunity in even the most entrenched situations.”
Amnesty International said Chad’s National Commission of Enquiry estimated that 40,000 people may have been killed by Chad’s security forces between 1982 and 1990 and that they committed torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.
In 2012, after lobbying by victims and advocates to bring Habre to justice, African Union and Senegalese officials set up the Extraordinary African Chambers, an ad hoc tribunal inside of the Senegalese courts to review crimes committed during Habre’s tenure.
Jeanne Elone, program officer for Trust Africa, a Dakar-based non-governmental organization, wrote recently in the International Justice Monitor that the case may mark the first time that an African head of state has been tried in another African country.
“It is moments like these that other victims around the world can draw on in darker times when justice appears beyond reach,” Mootoo said. “It will nourish them with hope and give them strength to fight for what is right. This landmark decision should also provide impetus to the African Union or individual African states to replicate such efforts to deliver justice to victims in other countries in the continent.”