N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - A court in Chad on Wednesday found 20 current and former security agents who served under ousted ruler Hissene Habre guilty of atrocities committed during his rule in the 1980s, including war crimes and torture.
The trial was the first in Chad of any of Habre’s accomplices, and is being hailed by human rights campaigners as a victory for Habre’s victims. Defendants included the former head of the once much feared political police.
Rights groups accuse Habre of killing up to 40,000 people in the eight years he ruled the oil-producing central African state.
The 72-year-old Habre is also facing trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, but his will be held at a special tribunal in Senegal, where he has lived in exile since his overthrow by current President Idriss Deby in 1990.
Following a 19-month investigation, the tribunal said last month it had enough evidence to try Habre. His trial is expected to open in May or June.
Some of the defendants were serving in senior government positions when they were arrested in 2013 and 2014 following an international campaign to finally hold Habre and his accomplices accountable for their crimes. The charges brought against them included crimes against humanity, war crimes, and illegal imprisonment.
Saleh Younous, who headed the political police known as the DDS, and Mahamat Djibrine, described by a 1992 truth commission as one of the “most feared torturers in Chad”, were among five defendants handed life sentences.
“Finally, finally, the men who brutalized us and then laughed in our faces for decades have got their comeuppance,” said Clement Abaifouta, an ex-political prisoner who now heads an association for Habre’s victims.
Other defendants received lesser jail sentences and four were acquitted.
The court also ordered the Chadian state and those convicted to pay 75 billion CFA francs ($126 million) in damages to 7,000 of Habre’s victims.
It also called for the DDS offices, located at the presidency, to be transformed into a museum and for a monument to be erected at the site of a mass grave in the capital N’Djamena.
Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who has investigated Habre’s alleged crimes, said the sentences and orders of reparations were a victory for the regime’s victims.
“It is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has been the norm,” he said.