The Trial of Hissène Habré
Read the coverage starting July 20th.
A Senegalese Merchant Testifies
Back in 2002, with my colleague Olivier Bercault, we had discovered in the abandoned files of Hissène Habré’s political police, the DDS, the names and stories of two Senegalese merchants who had entered the underworld of DDS jails. Demba Gaye and Abdourahmane Gueye, had been arrested by the DDS at N’Djaména airport in March 1987 when they came in on a French military plane from the neighboring Central African Republic. They were interrogated by the DDS and then placed in separate jails. The documents told us that Demba Gaye died eight months later in “Cell C” of the Locaux prison – known as the “cell of death.” The documents also showed that Abdourahmane Gueye was finally rescued and handed over by Habré’s Minister of the Interior to the Senegalese ambassador.
Our Chadian colleagues remembered them as simple merchants who could not understand what was happening to them. It was my friends Clément Abaifouta and Sabadet Totodet who had taken the body of Demba Gaye to the mass grave at “the Plain of the Dead” outside N’Djaména, where so many other bodies rested.
For years we searched in vain for Abdourahmane Gueye, the survivor, until at a press conference in Dakar in 2005 the Senegalese activist Alioune Tine publicly revealed the existence of the two Senegalese victims, giving their names. The next day, Abdourahmane Gueye, having heard his name on the radio, showed up at Alioune’s office, eager to share his story.
The case against Habré had a new face in Senegal.
For the past ten years, the lanky Abdou, as everyone calls him, has been telling his story to Senegalese communities at home and abroad, to his religious leaders, to the press and to Senegalese politicians – including now-president Macky Sall whom Abdou and I met with Chadian victims when Sall was in the opposition.
Today he told his story to the court trying Hissène Habré.
The courtroom was more crowded than usual, as many of Abdou’s friends and family came to hear him. The local press also turned out in greater numbers.
In an easy and clear manner, Abdou recounted his nightmare in the jails of a world that was not his, a country that he did not understand. When he was first dumped in a packed cell at the “Camp de Martyrs” prison, he asked if he could see a lawyer. The one man in the cell who spoke French laughed and said, “there are no lawyers here, there are no judges here. This is the DDS and the DDS belongs to Hissène Habré.”
Like other survivors, Abdou described the inhuman conditions in his jail: malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, prisoners taken away at night, corpses which rotted before they were evacuated.
After his disappearance was reported by the French army to the Senegalese authorities, his government began looking for him. It was finally the Senegalese ambassador to the region who came to fetch him. The ambassador gave him the bad news that his colleague Demba had died.
Habré’s supporters have been attacking Abdou in the press for years, accusing him of gold trafficking and illegal entry into Chad, but after testifying, Abdou told us “I’m very happy. I feel at ease because no one could deny what I said. This is what I have been waiting for years: my moment of justice”.
Their Dictator in the Dock
Yesterday at the Dakar apartment of Jacqueline Moudeina, lead lawyer for the victims of the Hissène Habré government, I had the chance to watch Habré’s trial for the first time on Chadian national television.
I was struck by the powerful idea of thousands of Chadians watching their former President in the dock. And he is not there because the current Chadian government wants him there, which is the way things usually happen in Chad, but because a group of brave Chadians - like Maitre Moudeina, and prison survivor Souleymane Guengueng – had fought to get him there.
When we began working with the victims 16 years ago, one victim asked “since when has justice ever come to Chad?” But now a precedent has been set. Justice did not come to Chad, Chadians brought that justice themselves.
Souleymane Guengueng Fulfills his Oath
It took 25 years, but Souleymane Guengueng testified yesterday and today at the trial of Hissène Habré.
Guengueng, a deeply religious civil servant, watched his cellmates perish from torture and disease during 2 ½ years in Habré’s prisons. When Habré was overthrown in 1990 and fled to Senegal, Guengueng used his considerable charm to persuade still-frightened victims to pursue the former dictator. As The New York Times said 14 years ago in its moving portrait of Guengueng, "on a continent where ordinary men are tortured, killed and forgotten without a second thought, Mr. Guengueng, has done something extraordinary: fought back. After being unjustly imprisoned and tortured for two years in the late 1980's, he spent the next decade gathering testimony from fellow victims and their families.”
In 2000, Souleymane and I, along with others, went to Senegal to file the first legal case against him. Back in Chad, Souleymane filed a more dangerous case against Habré’s henchmen still in positions of power there. Their threats forced Guengueng into exile in the United States in 2004, but he continued his work from there, lobbying around the world.
The trial for which Guengueng has fought so long finally began in July. Yesterday, it was his turn to speak, and he was ready.
In a steady voice, Guengueng began by addressing the court. “In 1988, I was wrongfully accused and imprisoned in inhuman conditions. From the depths of my cell, from the depths of that madness, I took an oath before God that if I got out alive, I would fight for justice. I am convinced that if God allowed me to remain alive, it was to carry out this mission, in memory of those who died and disappeared. And most of all, to prevent this from happening again.”
“With my friends, and with the help of Chadian and international organizations, we undertook a 25-year campaign for justice. Because of that stubbornness, I was fired from my job as an international civil servant. I was threatened by the henchmen of Hissène Habré. And I had to go into exile in the United States. But this stubbornness has paid off and today I stand before you.”
Then, like many before him, Guengueng described his years in Habré’s jails – he was sent to four of them - where he had contracted hepatitis, dengue fever and malaria. Cells so small that he couldn't even stretch his legs. Cells that were brightly lit 24 hours a day, and others that were in perpetual darkness. He described those who were tortured, those who were taken away at night and those who died of sickness and mistreatment.
When Habré fled in 1990, and the prison doors flung open, Guengueng had the presence of mind to take with him the crude utensils he had carved in jail, the fly-swatter he made from a cow’s tail and the sandy meal the prisoners were given. As the judges looked on in amazement, he unpacked them and displayed them in court. “I’ve been waiting 25 years to show these,” he said.
As Guengueng spoke, Hissène Habré listened silently, his face covered by a turban and sunglasses. His court-appointed lawyers questioned Guengueng for almost two hours, causing him to cry at one point as he recalled using his hands to relieve a constipated co-detainee.
And with his testimony Guengueng completed his fulfilment of the oath he had taken in his prison cell :" I feel relieved, I said everything I have been wanting to say,"
Sexual Slavery and Insults
As the trial of former Chadian dictator reaches its mid-point in the seventh week, things have gotten noticeably tense inside and out of the courtroom.
On October 13, witness Fatime Hachim described her imprisonment and alleged that Hissène Habré had told her, while she was in jail, that she would never get out. At the lunch break, one of Hissène Habré’s wives, who attends court each day, accosted Jacqueline Moudeina, the lead lawyer for the victims, saying “you brought them (the witnesses) here, you’re going to pay for that.” When Maitre Moudeina asked “are you threatening me?” Mme Habré replied “yes I am.” Clément Abaifouta, president of the victims’ association, intervened and a member of Habré’s family grabbed him by the shirt before they were broken up.
The next day, Hissène Habré’s chosen lawyers (the “real lawyers” as they call themselves)- those who do not represent him in court, which they refuse to recognize, but nevertheless attend the hearings every day in the audience - issued a written communiqué calling Fatime Hachim a “crazy whore” (“salope complètement cinglée”)
On October 19, the sound truck of Senegalese public TV (RTS), which films and broadcasts the trial to Chad and via internet streaming, was sabotaged. According to the police, a heavy cable was cut in several places. The RTS was able to fix the problem.
Later that day, Khadidja Hassan Zidane, the first to testify of several women who were sent as sexual slaves to the desert north of Chad to serve Hissène Habré’s army, took the stand. Hassan had something else to say, however. According to Hassan, she was raped by Hissène Habré himself on four occasions, and he also stabbed her with a pen. Hassan had never made this allegation before, but simply said in her pre-trial deposition that when the moment came, she would tell all.
Her testimony led to one of the most tense moments in the trial. One of the court-appointed defense lawyers repeatedly accused Hassan of lying, and called her a liar. The presiding judge told him to stop the persistent manner of attack, but he refused, leading the judge to call a conference with the parties to admonish him. Both Hassan herself and the defense team asked the court to carry out a medical examination, which the court declined to do, stating that it would not produce probative evidence in any event.
Habre’s media team wasted no time in sending a communiqué calling Hassan a “nymphomaniac prostitute” (“prostituée nymphomane”).
Today another former sexual slave, Kaltouma Deffalah, took the stand. A Chadian flight attendant with the pan-African airline, Air Afrique, she was taken off a flight that had made a stop in Ndjamena, and eventually sent to the same army desert camp as Hassan. Under questioning from the court-appointed defense lawyers, Deffalah said that while together in the desert, Hassan had told her that she had been raped by Hissène Habré. Directing her comments at Habré, she said that she was “very proud and strong to be here today telling my story when this man, who was once the dictator, is sitting there silently.”
More witnesses are scheduled this week to testify about their experiences as sexual slaves.
In 1989, Hissène Habré suspected the three top ethnic Zaghawas in his government, Idriss Déby, his advisor on defense and security, Mahamat Itno, minister of the interior, and Hassan Djamous, commander of the Chadian army and the man who defeated the Libyans, of plotting a coup against him. Itno and Djamous were arrested and killed (Déby escaped, went on to overthrow Habré and is still president 25 years later). The government responded to the threat by turning on the whole Zaghawa community. Documents of Habré’s political police show that hundreds were imprisoned. Dozens died in detention or were executed.
Today the court heard from the university professor and writer Zakaria Fadoul Khidir, who was arrested because of his kinship to the rebels
Fadoul, who is now the president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), and the author the book « Les moments difficiles, dans les prisons d’Hissène Habré en 1989 » (“Difficult times in Hissène Habré prisons in 1989”) described this exchange with his interrogator, Commissioner Mahamat Djibrine (MD):
MD: Professor, do you know why were you arrested?
ZFK: I don’t know.
MD: You don’t know what goes on?
ZFK: Yes. I know that some people have left the country, and others were arrested. But I didn’t do anything
MD: Professor, responsibility is collective.
Fadoul was released after two weeks of detention in the notorious underground “Piscine,” during which he saw many torture victims. Fadoul says he was told that Hissène Habré personally had him released because of the international outcry at his arrest.
According to documentation provided to the court by Professor Fadoul, 302 members of his clan were arrested and 135 executed or died in detention.
The Victims Testify
“Each time they took me in for questioning, someone was being tortured.” The first day, “they tore out the 10 fingernails of a man with pliers.” Another day, a man was subjected to the “arbatchar” binding and stretching of the limbs. Back in our cell lay a “rotting corpse.”
Mahamat Nour Dadji was 17 years old, the son of a close advisor to president Hissène Habré, when a Mercedes from the president‘s office came to his father’s compound, the same one that had come many times. But this time, in May 1987, the head of the political police, the DDS, was aboard and told his father Ahmat, a leader of the Hadjerai ethnic community, that “the president needs you.” The car took his father away. A few minutes later, other DDS agents took away the young Mahamat. They met later at the DDS headquarters before his father was taken away again. Ahmat Dadji never returned, while Mahamat spent two weeks in jail before being released. The courtroom audience sat in transfixed silence as he told of his experiences in jail.
Over the last two days, the court has heard a series of witnesses describe abuses against the Hadjeraï ethnic group. One told of burying prisoners in a mass grave. Another described how 16 prisoners were shot but he and 3 others were spared. The widow of a rich businessman told about how her husband, who had done business directly with president Hissène Habré, was taken away forever.
By way of background, Hadjeraï leaders had long been allied with Hissène Habré and even constituted the principal military force that brought him to power in June 1982. Nevertheless Habré began to mistrust the Hadjeraï when his minister of foreign affairs at the time, Idriss Miskine, a Hadjeraï, died under mysterious conditions in 1982, a sense of suspicion between Habré’s Goranes and the Hadjeraï grew. In 1987, some Hadjeraï leaders created an armed opposition movement, the MOSANAT, and Habré’s forces began attacking Hadjeraï dignitaries, their families and the entire ethnicity in general, while many Hadjeraï villages were completely destroyed. In 1989, the Zaghawa community would meet a similar fate.
Hissène Habré’s court-appointed lawyers have pointed out inconsistencies in the testimonies, faded memories about dates and numbers, and evoked the possibility that Ahmat Dadji was plotting a coup against Habré, but did not appear to undermine the core of the witnesses’ narrative. In the coming days and weeks many more victims and witnesses are scheduled to testify.
The Wheel of History
“I was arrested so that I wouldn’t talk about what I had seen, but the wheel of history turns and now here I am before you.”
So spoke Ahmat Maki Outman, the first actual victim to appear at the Hissène Habré trial, which has now entered its fourth week. He was describing a series of 1987 attacks by Habré ‘s security forces on the Protestant Church in Mongo, central Chad, as part of a wave of repression against the Hadjerai ethnic group.
Over the next few weeks, the court is expected to hear from dozens of victims and direct witnesses of abuses against the Hadjerai, the Zaghawa (1989-90), and in the south (1983-1985), as well against political opponents and prisoners of war.
Until now, the trial has mostly heard expert and background testimony. Last week, Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, known as the “statistician of the human rights movement,” described his study of mortality in Habré’s prisons. For the period he studied, prison mortality was “hundreds of times higher than normal mortality for adult men in Chad during the same period” and “substantially higher than some of the twentieth century’s worst POW contexts” such as German prisoners of war in Soviet custody and US prisoners of war in Japanese custody.
Canadian handwriting expert Tobin Tanaka looked at documents allegedly written by Habré. Most importantly, he testified that handwriting confirmed it was Habré who responded to a request by the International Committee of the Red Cross for the hospitalization of certain prisoners of war by writing “From now on, no prisoner of war can leave the Detention Center except in case of death.”
Olivier Bercault, my former Human Rights Watch colleague who is beloved by the Chadian victims, described our 16 years of work with them as well as our report “The Plain of the Dead” which found that Habré’s government was responsible for widespread political killings, systematic torture, and thousands of arbitrary arrests.
Danile Fransen, the judge who oversaw the 4-year Belgian investigation clinically described his work and the reasons that led to the 2005 arrest warrant against Habré.
Perhaps the most significant and dramatic witness was Bandjim Bandoum a former subdirector of Hissène Habré’s political police, the DDS, who now lives in Paris. Bandoum, whom I had interviewed several times, had been waiting for years for this moment. In a trembling voice, he explained that what he did and what he saw « has been on my conscience. Several years ago, my son asked me what I had done under Hissène Habré. I promised him that if Hissène Habré were tried I would give my testimony.” Bandoum described the hierarchy and functioning of the DDS, how the DDS director met Habré almost each day to give him reports. Bandjim explained that when interrogation reports on detainees were sent to the presidency, they came back with annotations: E for 'execute'; L for 'set free' or V for 'seen'. Only the president could request a release" he told the court. "Even Habre's closest collaborators were afraid of him," he said. As Bandoum finished, in answer to the questions from the victims’ lawyer William Bourdon, he said that to those who were harmed by his actions and inactions. “ I ask for forgiveness. I know it’s not sufficient, but I ask for forgiveness.” To Hissène Habré he said, “I have lived up to my responsibility, now it is time for you to live up to yours. ”
Throughout the hearings, Hissène Habré, once the dictator of Chad, president of the single party, supreme military chief, and head of the presidential guard, sits impassively behind his turban ad sunglasses.
The wheel of history turns.
Mass Graves and Postcards
After all the uncertainties and preliminaries, the Hissène Habré trial has gotten down to the business of examining the charges of mass atrocities against the former Chadian leader. Two key witnesses, Mike Dottridge, the former researcher of Amnesty International, and Mahamat Hassan Abakar, the president of Chad’s national post- Habré Truth Commission, took up the last 3 days of hearings.
Dottridge laid out the history of Amnesty’s 23 “mini-reports” during the Hissène Habré period that documented summary executions, torture and disappearances while Habré was in power. Amnesty shone a spotlight into Habré’s Chad, and after Habré’s fall 50,000 letters and postcards from Amnesty members were found in the files of Habré’s political police, the DDS. Dottridge also described an Amnesty delegation’s visit to Chad in 1985 which met with the DDS chief Saleh Younous. The Court also played a Radio France Internationale recording in which Habré responded to Amnesty’s allegations of massacres in the south of Chad in 1984-1985.
Mahamat Hassan Abakar, certainly one of Chad’s most distinguished jurists, came next. He provided testimony about the DDS’ torture methods and its jails as well as the different episodes of the repression during Habré’s reign. The Truth Commission’s film, unfortunately mangled by the technical problems that have dogged the hearings, showed stark images of emaciated prisoners and mass graves, leaving many in the court covering their eyes.
The court’s appointment of three lawyers to represent Habré has helped ensure the nature of the proceedings are now, as they should be, an adversarial affair. The defense lawyers spent hours cross examining both witnesses. It took all of Dottridge’s British sang-froid to remain calm, while Abakar used the questions to dig deeper into the Truth Commission report and it’s conclusions.
Habré’s supporters have called the court –appointed defense lawyers “mercenaries,” although Habré’s son was outside the courtroom taking a selfie with Mounir Ballar, the senior appointee.
One of Habré’s nephews, when he disrupted the hearings for a second time, was brought before the court President, tried with the assistance of a lawyer and convicted for disorder in the court, and sentenced to five months in prison.
Next up are the Belgian judge who spent 4 years investigating the case, statistician Patrick Ball and Human Rights Watch consultant Olivier Bercault, author of the Plain of the Dead.
A Long Journey Ends As Habre Trial Begins
One hundred and eighty-seven pages. Over two days, the clerks of the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar read out line after line of the long indictment of Hissène Habré. As I sat there, with a group of survivors, listening to the charges which included descriptions of the former Chadian president’s jails, the forms of torture, the villages destroyed - my mind drifted back to the 16 years of work it had taken us to get to this day.
Although Habré was indicted in Senegal (where he lives) in February 1990, just eight months after I began working with the victims, the prosecution was soon derailed by the then new president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, whose rank interference was condemned by UN rights monitors but set us off on what became referred to as a “political and legal soap opera.” Over the next 12 years, the case would be brought to the Belgian courts, the United Nations Committee against Torture, the African Union, the Court of Justice of the Community of West African States (Ecowas) and finally the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. It was only in 2012 when Macky Sall defeated Abdoulaye Wade in the Senegalese presidential elections and the ICJ (on my birthday) ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habré that things finally turned around.
During all those years, few people gave us a chance to succeed: heads of state hardly ever get prosecuted for their crimes, particularly in Africa. As I trudged with the survivors to summits of the African Union, diplomatic meetings and encounters with Senegalese officials, it often seemed like a fool’s errand, but we trudged on...
I made some 35 visits to Senegal, maybe 20 to Chad, and I even moved to Belgium in part to be closer to the case when it was in a Brussels court . We met both Abdoulaye Wade and Chadian president Idriss Déby four times. Looking at the photos hanging in the waiting room of the Senegalese minister of justice, I realized I had met with the last 10 ministers, all of whom until Macky Sall was elected had no desire to see me. (“That guy is just obsessed,” a Wade holdover told Aminata Touré, Sall’s first justice minister who would become a driving force behind the case.)
But the obsession paid off.
The opening of the trial in July - also on my birthday - was a celebration. Then the case was adjourned for 45 days in July following Habré’s outburst and the court appointment of new lawyers, and we once again had to be patient. What would happen when the case resumed? What new tricks did Habré have up his sleeve? We knew he would try again to create a ruckus, that he would try to remove his court-appointed lawyers and bring us back to square one. Would the court stand firm?
It did. The court made it clear that it was time to get down to business. Habré can make all the noise all he wants, but he doesn’t get to decide whether he should be tried, or if the victims get justice.
As the victims’ lead lawyer and my close professional partner Jacqueline Moudeina said after the reading of the charges was over, “Now the trial has really begun. Nothing can stop the course of justice now.”
The Trial Resumes, Another Step Toward Justice
The trial has finally resumed, 45 days after the court suspended proceedings to give appointed lawyers time to analyse the file and build their defense. On my way to Court with eight victims, most of them from Chad, I felt their excitement to finally see Habre in front of the judges.
Proceedings start: the prosecutors, the judges, the victims’ lawyers, the court-appointed lawyers were there. But not the accused himself. He refused to come. The presiding judge ordered him to be brought to court. No response.
The proceedings then pause shortly to give the bailiff time to bring Habre an order to appear.
One hour later, the proceedings resumed. The court ordered that Habre be forced to appear. And this time, they did not adjourn. Everyone in the room was waiting in suspense.
Then an outburst. Carried by police officers, the eight arms around him, Habre attempted to resist, screamed and then tried to escape. His supporters in the room shouted and some were sent out of the room.
Habre was then forced onto a chair in front of the judges. As soon as the presiding judge began to speak, the former strong man of Chad, once armed and funded by the CIA, started to yell « shut up, down with neocolonialism ! »
The judge reminded him that he will have to be present whether he wants it or not. The court has the authority to try him, even if he does not recognise it and considers it illegitimate.
The usual procedure started again : a clerk began to read the 187-page indictment describing how the repressive administration worked, details about the crimes.
The public listened, with attention. The victims remained dignified.
The proceedings were suspended, once again. Time for a lunch break.