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An African Dictator Faces Trial in His Place of Refuge

By Norimitsu Onishi

Foreign Desk; Section A
03/01/2000 The New York Times Page 3, Column 1
© 2000 New York Times Company

DAKAR, Senegal, Feb. 29 -- In a human rights case that was inspired by the one against Augusto Pinochet, the former president of Chad is expected to stand trial later this year on charges of torture.

The case against the former president, Hissene Habre , is being watched closely in Africa, where brutal rulers have engaged in widespread human rights violations with impunity. The accusations against Mr. Habre are already resonating across a continent where laws are applied inconsistently to the powerful and powerless.

''This is a message to other African leaders that nothing will be the same any longer,'' said Delphine Djiraibe, president of a human rights group working on the case. ''It shows that Africa can also play a role in the fight for human rights and can fight on its own soil.''

The case against Mr. Habre , 57, who has lived in exile in Dakar since being toppled from power in 1990, has also stirred some impassioned comments among African intellectuals. Some of them defend Mr. Habre , arguing that guilt cannot be assigned to African leaders of his generation because they were merely creations and pawns of cold war superpowers.

But several human rights organizations have worked quietly for months to collect evidence against Mr. Habre , drawing on the legal precedent established in the Pinochet case: that a person can be tried for crimes against humanity in any country and that former heads of state in particular are not immune. The violators are brought to trial on the basis of ''universal jurisdiction'' for such crimes.

In the case of Mr. Habre , the human rights groups say they have documented 97 cases of political killings, 142 cases of torture and 100 cases of people who have disappeared in Chad, an impoverished, desert nation in central Africa.

Still, it was considered an extraordinary sight when the former president appeared in a Senegalese court on Feb. 3. He has been in Dakar under house arrest since being indicted on torture charges by the court.

And perhaps even more startling had been the testimony, a few days earlier in the same court, of a half-dozen ordinary Chadians who told of being arrested and torturedduring Mr. Habre 's rule.

One of the prisoners, Souleyman Guengueng, was a civil servant who was arrested in August 1988 by the notorious security and documentation squad and accused of being an opponent of the government. Mr. Guengueng, who was still recovering from an operation he had undergone just days before the arrest, said he spent the next two years being tortured.

Mr. Guengueng said he lost consciousness for so long on three occasions that his fellow prisoners left him for dead. Up to 10 men were kept in one cell built for a single prisoner, and their legs eventually became paralyzed. And he said three to four people died every day from malaria, flea infestation, lack of food, suffocation or sheer heat.

He also recalled how 300 of their fellow prisoners had been jammed into one small cell; the guards would pour water into the cell from the ceiling, forcing the men to lick the floor or their bodies so they would not die of thirst.

Mr. Guengueng, reached by telephone in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, said he still has trouble walking and has poor vision because of a powerful light that, at one point during his incarceration, was directed continuously at him from a close distance. ''My joy was great in that courtroom,'' he said. ''Hissene Habre never thought that one day he would be brought to justice.''

In Chad, the ''untouchable'' are the elite who gravitate to the president and are above the law, said Ms. Djiraibe, president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. Those who engage in the ''politics of the belly'' are political opponents who make enough noise to earn some money and find some protection under the law. The rest of society cannot count on the law to protect them, she said.

Although the terms may change, inequality before the law is a given elsewhere in Africa. In the Ivory Coast, fo example, the three classes described by Ms. Djiraibe are sometimes described as officials of steel, wood and cotton. That is the reason why the case against Mr. Habre -- who as a former head of state was the ultimate untouchable -- carries great significance in Africa, human rights officials said.

Senegal is regarded as having one of the few independent judiciaries in Africa, and that is one of the main reasons that international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights, have joined in the case against Mr. Habre .

''This is now showing that there are African countries in which you can put these principles of human rights in practice,'' said Reed Brody, advocacy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. ''The case has profound implications in a way that it would not if it were being held in a European country, particularly a colonial country. That's one of the things that Latin Americans were saying about the Pinochet case -- that it was Europe imposing its laws.'' Spain is seeking the extradition of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, so he can stand trial on charges of torture, but doctors in Britain, where he has been under house arrest, have declared him medically unfit.

Mr. Brody pointed out that while several other African dictators are in exile -- for instance, Idi Amin of Uganda is in Saudi Arabia, and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia is in Zimbabwe - the courts in those countries are not free enough to pursue a similar case. Chad, a creation of French colonial mapmakers who threw together different populations into a desolate patch of land twice the size of Texas, has experienced continual war since gaining independence in 1960. In 1982, Mr. Habre , a rebel chieftain, seized power and ingratiated himself with France and the United States for being a staunch opponent of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya.

During Mr. Habre 's eight-year reign, his American and French backers often portrayed him positively, describing him as a charismatic leader and intellectual who genuinely cared about issues facing the developing world. But the French eventually tired of Mr. Habre , who was increasingly being criticized by human rights monitors, just as President Francois Mitterrand talked of openness and democracy in a post-cold-war Africa. And in December 1990, after a French-supported invasion from Sudan, Idriss Deby -- who had been Mr. Habre 's military commander and the country's No. 2 leader -- overthrew Mr. Habre and sent him into exile.

In Dakar, several Senegalese intellectuals said it was hypocritical of Western human rights organizations to pursue Mr. Habre now, given their governments' previous support. ''Hissene Habre was received and honored in Paris as a head of state and ally,'' said Babacar Sine, one of Senegal's most famous intellectuals. ''France never regarded him as a dictator.''

Mr. Sine, who has known Mr. Habre for 40 years, added: ''This case is much more complex than the role of Habre . There is the role of France that supported him. There is the role of the United States that supported him. If we are to judge Hissene Habre , we have to also judge those who supported him.''

Another complicating factor is that Mr. Deby is still president of Chad, where human rights monitors say arbitrary killings by the security forces, torture, beatings and other forms of abuse remain common. Human rights organizations behind the case are pushing for the trial to take place in Senegal. If Mr. Habre were extradited to Chad, they say, a fair trial would be unlikely because his testimony would implicate members of the current government, including President Deby.

Madicke Niang, a Senegalese lawyer defending Mr. Habre , said his client acknowledged that human rights abuses had occurred under his rule, but denied the scale.

''He denies the acts he is accused of,'' Mr. Niang said. ''And if these acts did occur, he denies having had any knowledge of them. It is Idriss Deby who should be held responsible for those acts because he was Hissene Habre 's military commander.''

It is impossible to determine the exact scale of the abuse under Mr. Habre because the only extensive report was made by a truth commission set up by Mr. Deby. The commission said that the Habre government carried out 40,000 political killings and 200,000 cases of torture, and that Mr. Habre gave direct orders to single out certain groups or people. Mr. Habre is said to have fled Chad with more than $11 million.

tchadien Hissène Habre
© 2000 Corbis-Sygma
L'ancien Président tchadien Hissène Habré

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