DAKAR, Senegal – An appeals court in Senegal upheld the life sentence of former Chad dictator Hissene Habre on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, bringing to an end a landmark trial pursued by victims for more than 16 years.
The court also ruled Thursday that millions of dollars of compensation awarded to more than 4,000 victims would be managed by a trust fund.
Head appeal Judge Ougadeye Wafi said the fund will manage more than 82 billion CFA ($135 million) owed to victims who have been seeking justice since they were released from prison in 1990 when Habre fled Chad. The compensation for victims should come from the seizure of Habre’s assets and it is not clear how quickly that will happen.
The 74-year-old Habre’s conviction was the first of a former head of state by an African court for crimes against humanity. The trial itself was also the first in which courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.
The court dropped the rape conviction against Habre because the charge was introduced during the trial, said Wafi, though he said they believed the accounts of a witness who said she was personally raped by Habre.
“I have been fighting for this day since I walked out of prison more than 26 years ago. Today I am finally at peace. I hope that all the dictators in Africa take notice — no one is above the law!” said Souleymane Guengueng, who began collecting accounts of survivors not long after being freed from prison in 1990, and founded the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissene Habre.
Clement Abaifouta, now the president of the association and a former prisoner who was forced to bury dead inmates, said this was the beginning of something new.
“Today is a great and a famous day for all victims. I am dreaming of now building a new society without the violence, a new society with democracy and with respect for human beings,” he said.
Victims and survivors have been pursuing the case against their former leader for more than 16 years and some have been collecting stories for more than 26 years in hopes this day would come. Over 90 witnesses testified in the trial that began in July 2015.
Prosecutors presented evidence, including files of Habre’s own political police, documents in his own handwriting and testimonies from those who received his orders.
The Extraordinary African Chambers, created by the African Union and Senegal to try Habre, found him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment in May for crimes committed during his presidency from 1982-1990. The court later ordered him to pay tens of millions of dollars in compensation to victims.
Habre had lived a life of luxury in Senegal’s capital of Dakar after fleeing Chad in 1990 until he was charged in 2013. Habre dismissed the trial as politically motivated and his defense lawyers refused to appear during the trial. He was escorted out of the trial on the first day of witness testimony for shouting.
Court-appointed lawyers, however, represented him and appealed the conviction, alleging that one of the trial court judges should not have been appointed given his background as a prosecutor, and that there were several errors of fact and law.
“A lot of deception,” said one of Habre’s court-appointed lawyers Mounir Ballal after the appeals court verdict. “The only satisfaction … was the question of the incrimination of rape,” which was dropped.
Lawyers for his alleged victims also appealed, calling for the reparations to be managed by a trust fund. The African Union set up a trust fund during the trial, and will now manage gathering funds with international partners and finding Habre’s assets.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habre’s government of systematic torture, saying 40,000 people died during his rule.
Habre was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, but legal twists and turns over a decade saw the case go to Belgium and then finally back to Senegal after unwavering pursuit by the survivors. The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, cannot prosecute crimes committed before it was established in 2002.
“Habre’s final conviction after 26 years is a crowning victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity his trial never would have taken place,” said international rights lawyer Reed Brody, a member of the International Commission of Jurists who has worked with Habre’s victims since 1999.