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The Trial of ‘Our Sonofabitch’ in Africa

Hissène Habré, Chad’s brutal former dictator, faces the heat in a criminal court.

Published in: Politico

DAKAR, Senegal — They’re working on the hotel pool, which only reminds me of the mass atrocities we’re all here for.

The trial of former Chadian president Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes started Monday. Or, more accurately, “restarted,” because at the formal beginning of the trial in July, the accused caused a commotion, and his lawyers failed to appear, forcing the judges to appoint him lawyers, who were then given 45 days to study the case.

Former Chad President Hissene Habre (R) raises his fist in the air as he leaves a court in Dakar escorted by a Senegalese policeman November 25, 2005.  © 2005 Reuters

The extra six-and-a-half weeks was but a blip in the 25 years the victims of abuses in Habre’s Chad have been waiting for justice — those who survived his rule (1982-90), anyway. It’s alleged that perhaps as many as 40,000 did not, having succumbed to torture, inhuman conditions of imprisonment and summary executions.

Some of those survivors are here at the steamy seaside hotel, along with activists, lawyers, experts and journalists all somehow involved in or covering the high-profile case. The air is sticky and humid; the atmosphere is a strange combination of relief and expectation.

It’s a mix because, after two and a half decades of countless contortions in various legal jurisdictions and deliberate diversions due to west African politics, the victims will finally face their tormentor in a court of law. Being tried at the ad hoc Extraordinary African Chambers, part of the Senegalese legal system but supported financially and diplomatically by a number of countries, Habré will have to answer for some of the most appalling criminal acts imaginable.

The extreme nature of some of the crimes is matched only by the extreme obscurity they now seem to have internationally, at least in the Anglophone world. This is somewhat strange, given that Habré was the West’s quintessential “our man in Africa.” Backed by Paris and Washington to counter Libya’s Gadaffi, Habré’s security forces were trained and armed by an unlikely coalition that included Israel and Saudi Arabia.

That gives the case wide resonance for international affairs today. It’s a lesson for world leaders who would continue to play “our sonofabitch” politics without any concern for the fundamental human rights of those living under despotic rule. Think, for example, of Washington’s current courting of the brutal Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, for logistics support in Afghanistan and now in the fight against Islamic State, or ISIL, despite the Karimov government’s systematic torture and the Andijan Massacre of 2005.

Or consider Western support today for Egypt’s Sisi, despite his role in the Raba’a Massacre and the jailing of journalists. Or Azerbaijan… Or Ethiopia… Or… it’s a long list.

The point is, the truth of such governments is eventually revealed, sometimes justice is done, and it makes for very uncomfortable reading in the West. The photos of Habré at the White House with President Reagan take on a completely different hue when the prosecution in an internationally supported court accuses an African leader brought to power by the CIA of overseeing systematic atrocities.

The Habré case will also have important reverberations on international justice. It’s the first trial to proceed in Africa of one country’s courts prosecuting international crimes committed in another country. There’s a tense debate in and around Africa about the even-handedness of the International Criminal Court, which, some say, has disproportionately prosecuted African perpetrators. If this national court, based on universal jurisdiction, works and delivers the justice it promises, then “Africans trying Africans for grave crimes in Africa” may become a trend.

African victims in Habré’s Chad faced unbelievable horrors. The files of his own political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate, are damning. Papers found by some of my Human Rights Watch colleagues, for example, contain the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of torture, arbitrary detention, or other human rights violations. And that’s just a small piece of the overall picture.

Along with arbitrary arrests and political killings, the documents reveal an apparatus of terror that was particularly cruel, even sadistic. They included the infamous “arabatchar” binding of prisoners — a kind of hog-tying of limbs behind the back for long periods; forced intake of water; inserting the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle into the victim’s mouth; burning the most sensitive parts of the body with hot objects; as well as electric shocks, beatings, whippings, rape, and extraction of fingernails.

But Habré’s torturers in many cases knew just how much their victims could take and stopped just before they died. It may be that the appalling conditions of detention killed more people than anything. Most of the victims Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with tell us they don’t even know how they survived the starvation, lack of space, overcrowding, lack of medical attention, extreme heat, and insects, compounded as there were by lack of contact with the outside world and an atmosphere of constant fear created by enforced disappearances, summary executions, and the daily deaths of detainees. In addition, corpses were not always cleared out of cells or the prison, but instead often left on the cell floor for days after.

Which brings us back to the empty pool.

One particularly infamous prison was known as the “Piscine,” because it was set up in a former in-ground swimming pool, which families of French soldiers had used during the colonial period. Dozens of detainees were jammed into cells that measured just a few square meters, even in the unbearable heat of summer. Guards at the Piscine would often wait until several people had died before clearing the decaying corpses out of their cells.

For many Chadians, the Piscine has come to symbolize the terror of the Habré era and the terrible conditions to which prisoners were subjected.

For me now as well, because as I read through the materials in preparation for the case, I can’t help but look over at the empty hotel pool and let dark imagination slip in. It will be a long time until I can look at an empty swimming pool again without recalling the horrors associated with this case.

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