International Justice
Hissène Habré - The Political Police Files



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In May 2001, Reed Brody and Olivier Bercault of Human Rights Watch stumbled upon a treasure trove of documents from Hissène Habré's dreaded political police, the Directorate de Documentation et Securité (DDS), at its abandoned headquarters in N'Djaména, Chad. The blood-stained history of Habré's regime was piled knee-deep through several rooms. These documents - daily lists of prisoners and deaths in detention, interrogation reports, situation reports, death certificates etc. - were a forgotten and disheveled monument to Chad's darkest period.

After the Chadian government gave its permission to excavate the headquarters, a team from the Chadian Victims' Association (AVCRP) spent the next six months sorting and copying the most important documents for shipment to Human Rights Watch headquarters in New York.

A team from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) of the Benetech Initiative developed a database for Human Rights Watch, which input information from 2,745 key documents into a searchable database. The HRDAG is now analyzing the data for use in the legal case against Hissène Habré.

The files are a road map to the Hissène Habré's repression. Following are some glimpses, with links to the original documents (in French). Much of the story below originally appeared as appeared as "Les archives de l'horreur," in Jeune Afrique l'Intelligent , March 2, 2003.

The DDS: "The Eyes and Ears" of Hissène Habré

Hissène Habré created the DDS by presidential decree on January 26, 1983. It was to be "directly responsible to the Presidency of the Republic, due to the confidential nature of its activities," and its tasks included "the collection and centralization of all intelligence information…that threaten to compromise the national interest,…and collaboration in suppression through the creation of files concerning individuals, groups, collectivities, suspected of activities contrary to or merely detrimental to the national interest." Armed with this broad mandate, the DDS rapidly became a highly effective instrument of repression. Ever-suspicious, Habré would not place anyone at the head of the DDS who was not a member of his own ethnic group, the Gorane. One of the DDS' directors was his own nephew, Guihini Korei.

In a memo found in the DDS' archives, its director proudly affirmed that the DDS, "thanks to the spider's web it has spun over the whole length of the national territory, keeps exceptional watch over the security of the State", and that it is the "eyes and ears of the President of the Republic, [whose] control it is under and to whom it reports on its activities." Indeed, Hissène Habré exercised complete control over the DDS' operations, as is illustrated by the hundreds of documents that kept the dictator informed of even the smallest details of the agency's activities on a daily basis, from counter-espionage and the status of its prisoners to electricity shortages and the production of uniforms.

"Physical discipline" or torture?

The documents found in the archives reveal that the individuals arrested by the DDS were systematically interrogated following their arrest. Many were tortured. According to victims and witnesses, torture was used by DDS agents during questioning to extract confessions and information. The DDS' methods were described in great detail in the report of the Chadian Ministry of Justice's Commission of Inquiry into the Crimes and Misappropriations of ex-President Habré, which was published in 1992. And while the documents retrieved from the archives never seem to mention acts of torture explicitly, such acts are often alluded to- evidence of a practice so common that it manifested itself even in official documents. A letter addressed to the director of the DDS from the Commander of the Rapid Intervention Brigade (the military arm of the DDS) in N'Djaména concerning the fate of an alleged opposition activist, makes a veiled reference to the practice: "It was in compelling him to reveal certain truths that he died on October 14 at 8 o'clock." In the same manner, the records of the interrogation of a prisoner who had earlier escaped from prison revealed that he "only admitted certain facts that had been alleged against him after physical discipline was inflicted upon him." Many other documents found in the archives make allusions to the practice of torture by referring to "muscular" or "heated" interrogation.

Deaths in Detention

Hundreds of death certificates of prisoners were found in the DDS' archives. Under Habré's rule, seven prisons were used in N'Djaména for political prisoners and prisoners of war, one of which was at the Presidential residence for "very special" prisoners that Habré wanted to have close at hand. The most sinister of these prisons was without a doubt the "Piscine" ("swimming pool"), an underground prison. Formerly the Leclerc swimming pool, reserved for the families of French soldiers during the colonial period, the Piscine was under Habré's orders covered by a concrete roof and divided into ten dank cells that were linked to the surface by a single staircase.

Among the causes of the innumerable deaths, the discovered documents make notable reference to severe amoebic dysentery, severe dehydration, arterial hypertension, severe oedemas of the upper and lower limbs, loss of mobility in limbs contracted for several days, general deterioration of health, etc. In a "monthly report" for the month of June 1987, the head of the DDS' penitentiary service describes the principal reason for the prisoners' weakness- the meals that they received: "Our prisoners suffer from afflictions such as acute articular rheumatism. […] All of the illnesses described above come about due to a lack of balance in the prisoners' diets."

The death rate escalated. Benetech's preliminary analysis of the documents for the year 1986, for example, indicated that on average, roughly one percent of the political prisoners died per day." And 1986 was far from being an atypical year. According to the "monthly report" for the month of January, 1988, for example, 14 of the 209 listed political prisoners "died because of illness."

Death, with the help of torture and inhuman conditions, could come rapidly in prison. One document from 1989 lists the name of 14 prisoners arrested between the 2nd and the 5th of April of that year. All of them "died due to illness" between the 16th and the 26th of the same month.

In a report titled "On the circumstances of the successive deaths of prisoners in the detention facilities of the DDS," the DDS' Inspector traced a direct link between the high number of deaths and the conditions in the prisons:

"From the 1st of May until the 16th of June 1985 nineteen (19) prisoners died in the facilities of the Special Rapid Intervention Brigade. According to the study done in the "facilities" [one of the prisons in N'Djaména] and according to the head nurse, it turns out that the successive deaths are due to different illnesses contracted within the facilities, that is to say:

- dysentery
- paralysis of limbs
- cases of boils brought on by the heat
- insufficiency of food

In addition, no treatment has been given to the prisoners because for three months, the BSIR's dispensary has been without medicine."

The Red Cross denounces the treatment of the prisoners of war

Hissène Habré took power on June 2, 1982 by toppling the Transitional Government of National Unity (GUNT) led by Goukouni Oueddei, who retreated to the north of Chad with his troops. Habré's regime was marked by several years of war, with government forces facing off against those of the GUNT, which was supported by Libya. Several battles yielded hundreds of prisoners, notably at Faya-Largeau in 1983 and then again in 1986 and 1987. Those who were not executed on the spot were transferred under Habré's orders and imprisoned, in some cases, in the N'Djaména prison under horrible conditions.

A blistering report of the International Committee of the Red Cross found in the DDS' archives bears witness to a rare visit authorized in March of 1984 to the N'Djaména prison (the only prison that the ICRC visited in Chad). The report details the inhuman treatment endured by the prisoners of war. It describes chronically overcrowded cells, built to hold 180 people but sheltering on average more than 600 prisoners, each of whom were left with no more than a half-square meter of space. The report also mentions the "nonexistent hygiene," "widespread malnourishment," and the "lack of medical care." In conclusion, the report explained that "the combination of these factors has created a critical situation with regards to the health of the prisoners. More than half of them should be classified as gravely ill; 160 prisoners find themselves in a critical state, 22 have been set aside because they are considered lost, 28 cases of death have been reported in the two preceding months."

Many death certificates of prisoners of war were found. One of these contains the names of 32 prisoners who died on the same day, March 21 1986, "from their wounds."

"Black September"

After taking power in N'Djaména in 1982, Hissène Habré began planning the "pacification" of the south of the country, which he considered to be populated with traitors trained by armed groups called "CODOS," and headed towards secession. The wave of incredibly violent repression that Habré and his soldiers launched in pursuit of this objective took aim not only the CODOS rebels, but also systematically targeted the civilian population. In some prefectures, massive arrests and executions of civilians were deliberately carried out with the goal of sowing terror. Entire villages were pillaged and burned, forcing the villagers who managed to escape to seek refuge in the bush for months.

Beginning in September 1984, a particularly murderous wave of repression was unleashed with the goal of eliminating the southern elite and replacing them with people loyal to Hissène Habré. This period is commonly known among Chadians as "Black September." A report marked "Highly Confidential" describes the terror felt by the civilian population at the time, following the atrocities carried out in the region by the National Armed Forces of Chad (FANT), Habré's troops:

"Since the events of 15.09.84, the military situation is in FANT's hands. One thing to note, the security of the population has been disrupted since elements of FANT launched into acts of vandalism sowing terror among the peasant population as well as civil servants.

The population lives in fear since the events of 15.09.84, young men and women have fled the zone in the direction of Bongor seeking refuge because their security is not guaranteed. The peasant masses are truly terrorized, they have seen their possessions fall into FANT's hands like a ripe piece of fruit, and they do not dare to say a single word in the presence of the soldiers because they are so stricken with fear."

However, the terror in the South persisted long after "Black September." Other documents were discovered that contain daily reports documenting the massive campaign of violence being carried out in the region. Along the same lines, a piece of correspondence dated August 4, 1985 reveals the names of 68 people living in "villages Djola II and III" who were "massacred during the day of July 28, 1985 by Government forces."

The collective responsibility of the Hadjeraï and Zaghawa

Hissène Habré never hesitated to turn on his old comrades at arms when he needed to, nor to take his vengeance on the family or the entire ethnic group of a person or group of people who crossed him. The Hadjeraï and the Zaghawa, for example, who originally took power alongside Habré, were savagely persecuted when some of their members dared to oppose him.

In 1989 Hissène Habré suspected Idriss Déby, his advisor on defense and security matters, Mahamat Itno, Minister of the Interior and Hassan Djamous, Commander in Chief of the Chadian Army, the man who defeated the Libyans, of plotting a coup against him. All three men were ethnic Zaghawa. Habré not only had Into and Djamous arrested, tortured and killed (Déby managed to escape), but he turned on the rest of the Zaghawa as well, whether or not they were linked to the plotted rebellion. Hundreds were seized in raids, tortured and imprisoned. Dozens died in detention after horrible suffering or were summarily executed. The same methods had been used in dealing with the Hadjeraï in 1987. For Habré, responsibility was collective.

The lists of prisoners found in the DDS archives show that being Hadjeraï or Zaghawa was enough to get a person arrested. The title of one document concerning the transfer of detainees provides an illustration of this: "The Hadjeraï affair." A list (see example) dated May 26, 1989 titled "Re: Situation of the traitorous Zakawa agents arrested for complicity guarded in our facilities following a plot organized by Hassane Djamous" contained the names of 98 people, including shepherds, drivers, students, businessmen, soliders, etc. The reason for the arrest of each person on the list was invariably stated as "suspected accomplice of the traitors," with the exception of some people who were related to the rebels.

American Assistance

The United States under Ronald Reagan considered Hissène Habré to be a bulwark against the Libyan "leader," Mouamar Khadafi. Covertly, through the CIA, the U.S. government rendered paramilitary support to Habré to help him gain power. After he assumed the presidency, the Reagan administration furnished Habré with tens of millions of dollars in military aid every year, as is confirmed by recently declassified documents that Human Rights Watch has obtained from the U.S. Department of Defense. According to the Chadian Ministry of Justice's Commission of Inquiry, "the American advisors from the embassy went regularly to see the director of the DDS. They paid him daily visits, either to advise him or to exchange information." A letter dated 1986 tells of a transport plane carrying "the American advisor to the DDS, Mr. Maurice."

In a second document, officers from different Chadian security services tell of a "very special" training they attended in the United States in 1985. "Our American friends attached a very high degree of importance to this training. They promised us equipment…They told us in addition that we not only had to assure the security of our country, but also that of their authorities residing in our countries as well as their businesses." Among the list of those who attended the training are the names of some people identified by the Commission on Inquiry as among the "most feared torturers" in Chad. Four days after this report was made, Hissène Habré named one of the men on the list as the DDS' Director of research, and another as the Director of the DDS' photography service. Three of the agents received promotions to the upper echelons of the DDS immediately upon their return from Washington. Two would later be named by the Truth Commission as being among Habré's "most feared torturers." Although it is unclear what "equipment" the United States did provide, one document speaks of a Chadian request for truth serum and a "generator for interrogations."

Historical memory

The archives also serve to return to the people of Chad a part of their history and of their memory. Souleymane Guengueng, vice-president of the Victims Association, hopes to create from the discovered documents "a public archive that victims and their families can consult in order, in particular, to pick up the trails of those who disappeared."