The most brutal U.S.-backed dictator you’ve never heard of – Hissène Habré of Chad – is facing a trial before a unique court set up in his Senegalese exile. The court’s creation last week in Dakar, Senegal is a decisive breakthrough in a 22-year chess game pitting Habré against a group of prison survivors who never give up, as well as a hopeful sign that African courts can deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa.
Souleymane Guengueng, a modest civil servant, watched dozens of fellow cellmates die from torture and disease during three years in Habré’s prisons in the 1980s. Guengueng took an oath that if he ever got out of jail alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. When Habré fell in 1990 and fled Chad for Senegal after emptying out his country’s treasury, Guengueng rallied wary survivors and widows to seek redress. In 2000, inspired by the London arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, they went to Senegal to press charges.
A Senegalese judge indicted Habré for political killings and torture. But the former Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, found one pretext after another to delay Habré's reckoning. His tactics turned the victims’ saga into what Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, described as an “interminable political and legal soap opera.”
In 2001, on one of my trips to Chad, I stumbled upon the abandoned archives of Habré’s political police, the feared “DDS.” Tens of thousands of documents detailed how Habré conducted the repression of political opponents. A team of victims sorted the documents for entry into a database. The list was long – 1,208 dead prisoners and 12,321 victims of torture and other abuses.
The documents also described American training programs for DDS agents, including a course in the United States that some of the DDS’ most feared torturers attended. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States saw Habré as a bulwark against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Chad’s expansionist northern neighbor, and human rights did not figure into the equation.
When threats from Habré's henchmen back in Chad forced Guengueng into exile in 2005, he was replaced by Clement Abaifouta – the "gravedigger" – whose prison job had been to bury the bodies of deceased detainees in mass graves. Their lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, still has shrapnel in her leg from 2001, when one of Habré's security chiefs, who had returned as police chief of Chad's capital, ordered an attack on her with a grenade.
But the victims persisted, filing charges against Habré in Belgium, whose anti-atrocity law allowed its courts to hear cases from all over the world. A Belgian judge took up the case and carried out a landmark mission to Chad. In 2005, after a four-year investigation, he sought Habré’s extradition. When Senegal refused to send Habré to Belgium, and spent the next three years stalling on a request from the regional body, the African Union (AU), to put him on trial in Dakar, Belgium took the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the world court in The Hague. The Obama administration also threw its weight behind a trial.
This year, the victims’ perseverance and tenacity was finally rewarded. In April, Senegal elected a new president, Macky Sall, who immediately announced that he would change course. When the ICJ ruled in July that Senegal had to prosecute Habré “without further delay” if it did not extradite him, Sall’s government and the AU reached a landmark agreement to create “Extraordinary African Chambers” within the Senegalese courts. The presidents of the trial and appeals courts are to be appointed by the AU from other African countries. Habré’s victims will participate as civil parties, presenting witnesses and evidence, with the right to seek compensation. The court’s funders, including the United States the AU, the European Union and the Netherlands, approved a robust outreach and communications plan so that the trial can be broadcast in Chad.
Le Monde has called the Habré case “a turning point for justice in Africa.” Indeed, while some African leaders have claimed that Africa is unfairly targeted by international courts, the challenge has been to put teeth into African justice. A fair trial for Hissène Habré would be a tremendous step forward. It would also allow Souleymane Guengueng to fulfill the oath for justice he took more than two decades ago.
Reed Brody, Counsel with Human Rights Watch, has worked with Habré’s victims for 14 years.