Dakar (AFP) - A court in Senegal sentenced former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to life in jail Monday for war crimes and crimes against humanity, an unprecedented conviction hailed as a blow to the impunity long enjoyed by repressive rulers.
The verdict brings long-awaited closure for relatives of the up to 40,000 people killed and many more kidnapped, raped or tortured during his 1982-1990 term as president of Chad.
Habre was guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape, forced sexual slavery and kidnapping, said the presiding judge Gberdao Gustave Kam.
The 73-year-old ex-dictator, who wore his trademark billowing white robes and sunglasses in court, had presided over "a system where impunity and terror were the law," Kam said.
The case was heard by a special tribunal set up by the African Union under a deal with Senegal, and is the first time a country has prosecuted a former leader of another nation for rights abuses.
On hearing the decision, Habre raised his arms in the air and shouted "Down with Francafrique!", the term used for France's continuing influence on its former colonies.
He had declined to address the court throughout the 10-month trial, and refused to recognise its authority.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the conviction was "an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from," its involvement in Chad, referring to US and France's backing of his regime as a buffer against Libya's Moamer Khadafi.
An EU spokesman said the "historic" sentence set an "important precedent for international justice and the fight against impunity" and praised the determination of Senegal's authorities in bring the case to trial.
Habre has two weeks to appeal the sentence.
- Crowning achievement -
Victims groups who had travelled to Dakar to hear the verdict were visibly moved by the judgement.
"The feeling is one of complete satisfaction," said Clement Abaifouta, president of the Habre survivors association known by the acronym AVCRHH.
"It's the crowning achievement of a long and hard fight against impunity. Today Africa has won. We say thank you to Senegal and to Africa for judging Africa," he added.
In the Chadian capital N'Djamena up to 250 victims and their supporters gathered to watch the trial on television at their group's headquarters.
Women screamed with joy as the verdict was read out, embracing one another and shouting "We won!", before taking to the streets and blocking traffic as they spread the news.
- 'A powerful message' -
The precedent set by the verdict could be seismic, according to legal experts, especially after years of criticism that the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, has tried African leaders many say should be judged on the continent.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the verdict showed "nobody is above the law" at a time when the world is "scarred by a constant stream of atrocities."
Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has spent the last 15 years working with victims to bring Habre to justice, said the conviction was a warning.
"This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalise their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end," Reed said in a statement.
"Today will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice."
Habre's conviction for personally raping a woman was also a first by an international court trying a former world leader, according to Human Rights Watch.
Lawyers for the victims said Friday their next step would be to obtain compensation for their clients in a civil suit.
- Prison horrors -
Known as a skilled desert fighter often dressed in combat fatigues to fit the role, Habre fled to Senegal after his 1990 ouster by Chad's current President Idriss Deby.
Witnesses recounted the horror of life in Chad's prisons, describing in graphic detail abusive and often deadly punishments inflicted by Habre's feared secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Victims were subject to electric shocks and waterboarding while some had gas sprayed in their eyes or spice rubbed into their genitals, the court heard.
Habre's defence team unsuccessfully sought to cast doubt on the prosecution's argument that their client was an all-knowing, all-powerful head of the DDS, suggesting he may have been unaware of abuses on the ground.
For more than 20 years, the former dictator lived freely in an upmarket Dakar suburb with his wife and children.
"What we have seen today is not justice. It is a crime against Africa," said Mahamat Togoi, part of a Habre supporters group. "It's the dirty work of mercenaries in the pay of Francafrique."