The Landmark Trial Against Dictator Hissène Habré

Serving Justice in Chad, Making History in Senegal

The relative of a woman that recently gave birth yesterday to twins holds one of the babies before departing towards Chad's border, escorted by troops from the African Union operation in CAR (MISCA) in the northern town of Kaga Bandoro, April 29, 2014. Siegfried Modola / Reuters

On May 30, Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam, president of the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Appeals Court of Dakar, pronounced Hissène Habré, the former Chadian dictator, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. During his eight-year rule, which ended in 1990 after he was deposed and fled to Senegal, he oversaw the torture, rape, and murder of some 40,000 people.

I was part of the group that had petitioned the Senegalese court—which the African Union set up in February 2013 to try Habré—to include sexual violence on the list of charges. As the verdict was read aloud, a dozen Chadian women sitting in the row in front of me stood up and broke into song. Many of them had been forced into sexual slavery or raped in detention by Habré’s security forces. They had suffered silently for decades, afraid or unwilling to speak out until the case was brought to trial.

The trial against Habré is significant on many levels. It will go down in history as the first time an African court prosecuted a former head of state for crimes against humanity. It finally put into practice the principle of universal jurisdiction—that anyone, anywhere, can be held accountable for such crimes, no matter where that person resides. It was also one of the first instances in which a national court produced such a clear and strong indictment of sexual violence as a crime against humanity. It is hard to understate the significance: though rape and sexual violence have featured in wars for centuries, it was not until the ad hoc criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia that sexual crimes were clearly prosecuted as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide. After over a decadelong trial, the International Criminal Court has also finally secured its first conviction for rape as a war crime and crime against humanity in the case of Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba this past March. Now, the Extraordinary African Chambers—as

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