DAKAR (Reuters) - A special tribunal upheld the life sentence for Chad's former President Hissene Habre for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final decision of a landmark case, a judge presiding over the court in Senegal said on Thursday.
Habre, 74, an ally of the West during the Cold War, was sentenced last year to life in prison for rape and ordering the killing and torture of thousands of political opponents during his eight-year rule.
His lawyers had appealed the decision, saying the sentence was too severe. The appeal court's final verdict marks the end of a 17-year battle by victims and rights groups to bring the former leader to justice.
About a dozen victims present in courtroom in Dakar jumped up and cried, "We won!" when judge Wafi Ougadeye announced the verdict.
"Our patience has paid off. Never again will a dictator... be permitted to do horrible things and escape justice," said Clement Abaifouta, one of the Chadian victims.
The trial was conducted by the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), a tribunal created in 2013 by Senegal and the African Union for human rights crimes committed during Habre's rule. Habre fled to Senegal after being ousted in a 1990 coup.
The EAC appeals chamber on Thursday acquitted Habre of rape but affirmed his conviction for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.
Habre's lawyer Francois Serres said the trial was politically motivated.
"Africa cannot be proud of this trial. It was unfair from beginning to end," he said.
So far, the court has only tried Habre and the case marks a milestone for African justice. It is the first time in modern history that one country's domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another country on rights charges.
"Today will go down in history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors finally prevailed over their dictator," said Reed Brody, an American lawyer who has worked with Habre's victims since 1999.
Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Richard Lough and Pritha Sarkar