The sentencing of former Chad president Hissene Habre to life in prison by an African court has sent a strong message to despots on the continent that justice may catch up with them even after leaving power.
According to experts in international criminal justice, the May 30 decision by the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) sitting Senegal set a precedent as the first trial supported by the African Union on African soil, and is likely to be used as a reference for future trials against leaders who have committed crimes against humanity.
Nicodemus Minde, a Tanzanian political analyst, said the Habre verdict shows that international crimes can be investigated and tried by a regional court provided there is political goodwill and strong pressure from both local and international human rights organisations.
Habre — who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990 — was found guilty by the EAC of numerous human rights violations including murder, widespread sexual violence, mass imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and torture, in which an estimated 40,000 people died.
Habre’s trial was the first in Africa to proceed under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which states that international crimes have no borders and culprits can be tried in any country.
Reed Brody, a lawyer with the Human Rights Watch who has been pursuing the case on behalf of Habre’s victims since 2000, said the verdict is a warning to tyrants all over the world that they will never be out of the reach of their victims.
“Habre’s conviction after 25 years is a huge victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity this trial would never have happened. This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants would brutalise their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end. It will go down in history as the day a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice,” Mr Brody said.
Mr Brody, who was contacted by the Chadian victims following his experience with a similar case involving former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, said the verdict against Habre could mark the beginning of a new dynamics in Africa where leaders can be called to account after leaving power.
Habre now joins former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who was, in October 2013, sentenced to 50 years imprisonment for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s.
Taylor — who was the president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003 — was found guilty of aiding, abetting and planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history, by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting at The Hague.
One African former leader who could face similar trials is former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, who sought exile in Zimbabwe and is protected by the government of President Robert Mugabe, after being sentenced to death in abstentia by the Ethiopian Court.