Hissène Habré on Trial
On May 30, 2016 a court in Senegal found former Chadian president Hissene Habre – once dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet” – guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture and sentenced him to life in prison. Rights groups hailed the landmark verdict as a strong warning to leaders who brutalize their citizens. The case against him has been over 20 years in the making.
The ruling marked the first time in the world that the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another country. The trial in exile of Habré had been a long quest for justice for the victims and the families of victims. More than 4,500 victims were registered as civil parties in the case.
In 1983, Chadian dictator Hissène Habré created a political police force, the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), said to be responsible for over 40,000 deaths, countless acts of torture, and numerous human rights violations against men, women, and children. In 1990, Habré was overthrown by Idriss Deby, the Chief of Staff of his army, and Habré sought asylum in Senegal. Habré, who was dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990, faced charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture before the Extraordinary African Chamber, an ad hoc tribunal, in Senegal. This trial was not only a turning point for justice in Africa, but also a historic first. It was the only case to date in Africa in which the courts of one country had used the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. This event had special significance in a continent that largely criticizes and rejects the authority of the International Criminal Court.
Habré was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, but legal twists and turns over a decade saw the case go to Belgium and then finally back to Senegal after unwavering pursuit by the survivors and their supporters. In 2001, a Human Rights Watch team found the DDS archives that included extensive evidence of war crimes, including lists of prisoners, torture reports, and death certificates of the DDS’s victims. In 2005, Belgian courts issued an international arrest warrant and an extradition request for the former dictator for “substantial human rights violations” after some of the victims of his regime filed criminal charges against him in Belgium. The Senegalese justice authorities repeatedly refused to comply with the extradition request. This changed in 2012, however, with the election of Macky Sall, Senegal’s new president. Under Sall’s leadership, and following increasing international pressure, particularly on the part of the African Union, Senegal finally agreed to prosecute Habré.
The Extraordinary African Chambers is an African Union tribunal created in 2013 within Senegal's justice system and funded by the international community. Chad's government, run by President Idriss Déby, who served as Habré's military adviser and pushed him from power, supported the trial. It wasn’t until February 2013 that a special tribunal to judge Habré for crimes against humanity, known as the Extraordinary African Chambers, finally became operational. The prosecution team is currently conducting a pre-trial investigation. Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was taken into police custody in Senegal June 30, 2013. While Human Rights Watch says this is a "milestone" in the long campaign to bring him to justice, a lawyer for the ex-ruler said its Habré’s rights who are being violated.
Reed Brody is a lawyer for the New York-based Human Rights Watch who has been working with Habré’s victims since 1999. "This is an amazing day for Hissène Habré’s victims, who have been fighting for 22 years with tenacity and perseverance for their day in court. With this step, it looks like justice is finally happening. What we expect now is that Habré will be formally indicted for crimes against humanity and torture. The judges will then investigate the charges, and we look forward to a trial - a fair trial - in which Hissène Habré’s right are respected and the victims have their day in court," he said.
The trial was based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. This principle allows “national courts to try cases of the gravest crimes against humanity, even if these crimes are not committed in the national territory and even if they are committed by government leaders of other states.” Universal jurisdiction is in tension with another international law principle, the sovereignty of states, and can give rise to legal, political, and diplomatic issues.
In this case, Senegal repeatedly refused both to prosecute Habré in its national courts and to honor Belgium’s extradition request. These refusals by Senegal’s former President were officially based on the principle of state sovereignty. There are allegations, however, that Senegal’s past refusal to prosecute or extradite were linked to the fact that Habré made substantial gifts to Senegal’s former President, Abdou Diouf, and other Senegalese officials at the time when he asked for asylum after being overthrown. Habré was tried in Senegal by the Extraordinary African Chamber, an ad hoc tribunal created specifically for Habré’s trial, on the African Union’s insistence. It was composed of African judges applying international criminal law. The statute of limitations does not apply to this ad hoc tribunal, which made Habré’s prosecution possible 22 years after his overthrow.
The accused claimed the tribunal is the embodiment of colonialism and imperialism, of which he was a victim. Habre refused to stand or acknowledge the judge throughout the trial, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, his head and face wrapped in a white scarf. He had to be forcibly brought into the court in June 2015 when the trial began. He asked his lawyers not to represent him. This request led to a 45-day interruption of the trial, to give his court-appointed lawyers time to study the case and prepare his defense. The trial resumed on September 7, 2015, with witnesses testifying against the former dictator. Habré, who was then 73 years old, faced a sentence of 30 years in jail or a life of penal labor.
On 30 May 2016 the court in Senegal found former Chadian president Hissene Habre guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture and sentenced him to life in prison. Rights groups hailed the landmark verdict as a strong warning to leaders who brutalize their citizens. The court found Habre to have been directly involved in ordering detentions, executions, systematic torture and other abuses against people identified as opponents of his regime.
Judge Kam said Habre presided over eight years of "uninterrupted" repression. Rights groups say Habre was responsible for over 40,000 killings. During sentencing, Judge Kam said Habre "created and maintained a system where impunity and terror were law. He was at the head of a regime of generalized suspicion, so paranoid that he himself turned against his own agents."
The court found Habre to have been directly involved in ordering detentions, executions, systematic torture and other abuses against people identified as opponents of his regime. Judge Kam said Habre presided over eight years of "uninterrupted" repression. During sentencing, Judge Kam said Habre "created and maintained a system where impunity and terror were law. He was at the head of a regime of generalized suspicion, so paranoid that he himself turned against his own agents."
A documentary on the former Chadian strongman, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, featured extraordinary closing footage of the former rebel-turned-despot being forcibly carried into the courtroom, kicking and screaming.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission singled out the brutal police force under the former rebel leader-turned-president for some of the worst atrocities during Habré’s reign. The strong evidence was a key factor in this precedent-setting trial. In 2001, the police force's archives were discovered on the floor of its headquarters in Chad, records that went back to Habré's rule and which mention more than 12,000 victims of Chad's detention network. Rights groups said Habre was responsible for over 40,000 killings.
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