It was over 25 years ago that former Chad dictator Hissène Habré terrorized his population with the blessing of the Reagan White House. Now, he is on trial in Dakar. The proceedings could become a milestone of international criminal law.
Four prison guards drag the defendant into the courtroom. He is wearing a pristine white caftan, while a turban covers his face. He is doing all he can to resist: kicking and screaming. Ultimately, though, Hissène Habré, Chad’s infamous ex-dictator, is overpowered. With his relatives in the public gallery hurling insults at court officials, the uniformed guards manage to shove the prisoner into the defendant’s chair.
It’s Monday, September 7, in courtroom four at the Dakar’s palace of justice. The trial against 73-year-old Hissen Habré, which started in July before immediately being postponed, has just resumed. The former president of Chad, who was in power from 1982 to 1990, was one of the most gruesome tyrants in post-colonial Africa’s gruesome history. He is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. According to estimates by a Chadian truth commission, he is responsible for the deaths of at least 40,000 people.
“The great dictator looks like a kicking baby,” says Souleymane Guengueng, a bald man in the third row. “Now he has to pay for his atrocities.” Guengueng says this with a great deal of satisfaction. He survived Habré’s rule of terror, and has been waiting for this trial for 25 years. Now he hopes that he and thousands of victims will finally get justice.
The indictment is read out, a 187-page litany of horrors during which Hissène Habré repeatedly calls out: “Silence! Shut up! This trial is illegal!” He wants to jump up and he kicks his legs, but the guards press him onto the chair. After an hour, the old man loses his energy. By the end of the trial’s first day, he is just sitting there apathetically and staring into the distance.
The trial taking place in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, this fall is an historic one: For the first time, an African despot is being tried in an African country, after the African Union (AU) gave its blessing to the special tribunal. It was a decision nobody had expected. The organization, after all, includes several dictatorships whose rulers are themselves at potential risk of prosecution.
Furthermore, the relationship of many African states to the International Criminal Court in The Hague is irreparably damaged: They consider the ICC to be a racist institution of the West that has it out only for Africans. Alleged criminals like Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta refuse to cooperate with the global court and in June, the South African government blocked the extradition of Sudanese head of state Omar al-Bashir, who has been on the ICC wanted list for years because of the mass killings in Darfur.
But the international court has no jurisdiction for the crimes in Chad. The ICC did not take up its work until 2002 — after the massacres took place. For this reason, the AU has now decided to take its own legal path: In Senegal, Africans are going to pass judgment on Africans for the first time. The trial could even serve as a model for other countries looking to clear up past crimes.
In late afternoon, Souleymane Geungueng returns to his hotel. He limps through the atrium, supporting himself with his walking stick. His cheeks are crossed with decorative scars, and he wears a black hat with a guinea fowl feather. A professional accountant born in 1951 and the father of nine, Guengueng is one of the primary witnesses for the prosecution.
He was arrested in August 1988 by the Chadian secret police and accused of being part of a conspiracy against Habré, ultimately spending a total of almost two-and-a-half years in four different jails. He was deathly ill several times — with malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis — and it’s a wonder that he survived. “It was completely dark in the overfilled cells, there was no window, no toilet, no space. To sleep we could only lie down when another prisoner died,” Guengueng recalls. Prisoners died every night.
Most of the prisoners were regularly tortured. Guengueng shows a scar on the back of his head, the result of being hit with a rifle butt that almost shattered his skull. He points between his legs. “I was hung up by my testicles, because I prayed for us.”
Waterboarding and Rape
When Habré was toppled in late November 1990, the prison doors opened. Souleymane Guengueng was half-blind, but he was free — and he began assembling evidence, lots of evidence. Survivors told him of the various torture techniques used on them: poisoning by car exhaust, electrical shocks, waterboarding and rape.
In a few months, he recorded 792 testimonies and hid them in his house. It was still dangerous to own such documents, because even under the new government of Idriss Déby, there were still representatives of the old regime in the police and military apparatus. In 1991, young scientists risked their lives to smuggle the documents out of the country and gave them to Human Rights Watch. These testimonies now form the basis of the evidence against Habré. Still, it would be many years before the despot could be put on trial.
After he was toppled, Hissène Habré fled to friendly Senegal — along with $12 million he had taken out of the national bank. For 23 years, he led a pleasant life in Dakar residing in the Ouakam neighborhood and in a villa in the wealthy Almadies area. He bought himself the favor of politicians, journalists and influential members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Souleymane Guengueng looks out from his hotel terrace to the bay of Dakar. “Only one thing drives me,” he says. “I want justice. The trial should be a lesson for the state criminals of the world.” He seizes his listener firmly under the arm. “These devils should know that they are never secure. That they will be caught at some point. That they won’t get away without punishment.” He pauses. “But without my friend Reed, we would actually never have made it this far.”
Reed Brody is a 62-year-old lawyer from the US and an activist with Human Rights Watch. For 16 years, he has been fighting to bring Habré to court, a period during which his dark hair began graying. “The criminal proceedings were as good as dead at least 10 times. It brought me to the edge of despair.” His friends were worried that he would lose his mind at some point. “It’s never gonna happen, give up!” they told him. But Brody didn’t give up and he obsessively continued his pursuit. It was during this period that his marriage broke up.
The ‘Dictator Hunter’
Justice is his life’s mission, says Brody. He grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Brooklyn. His father, a Hungarian Jew, had survived Nazi forced-labor camps in Ukraine and Serbia while his mother would bring him along to civil rights protests. After law school, he took a job at the New York State District Attorney’s Office, but in 1984, a trip to Nicaragua changed his life. Brody uncovered crimes committed by the Contras, the rebels that wanted to topple the left-wing government with the secret help of the US military. His revelations made it onto the front page of the New York Times.
Soon thereafter, Brody resigned from his well-paid job and became a human rights lawyer. He examined state crimes in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and other countries, including his own. For Human Rights Watch, he documented the torture methods in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Before long, he became known as the “Dictator Hunter” and victims of violence around the world asked him for help.
Brody took on his perhaps most important case in 1998: Augusto Pinochet. In October of that year, the former military dictator of Chile had been arrested in England and Brody flew to London as a representative of Human Rights Watch. He stayed for six months, fighting for Pinochet’s extradition to Spain, where there was an outstanding international warrant for him. “It was the first opportunity to apply universal jurisdiction” in cases of crimes against humanity, he says. In the end, the sick despot managed to get away with house arrest, but the legal path had been shown for the international persecution of state criminals.
In the case of Chad, Brody was not only dealing with a brutal dictator. He was also dealing with his own government, which had likewise played a role in the horror. In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan was searching for a “man in Africa” who would keep Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi in check — and he decided on Hissène Habré, a rebel leader who was as ambitious as he was ruthless. His rebels were armed with heavy weapons by Washington, counseled by US intelligence operatives and supported by French army units. In October 1982, Habré seized power for himself with the logistical support of the CIA. Until his toppling in 1990, he waged a proxy war against Gadhafi’s troops; 10,000 Libyan soldiers are thought to have been killed in the conflict. In June 1987, Habré was received by Reagan in Washington.
Nobody wanted to hear about the fact that he rampaged through his country and had tens of thousands of people killed. In 1984, three years before his state visit to the US, entire villages were erased in southern Chad during an incident that came to be known as “Black September.” “Habré was the most brutal dictator ever to have been funded by the United States,” says Brody. He had finally found the “African Pinochet” — and was convinced that the pursuit of this villain would bring about a breakthrough in his mission.
Knee-Deep in Regime Documents
Brody was there when Belgian investigators discovered the former headquarters of Habré’s secret police, the DDS. “It was next to a neglected swimming pool, in the basement of which people had been tortured. The haunting place was like the headquarters of the Gestapo,” he remembers. “We were standing knee-deep in regime documents. Habré’s henchmen hadn’t had enough time to destroy them.” The investigators secured stacks of prisoners’ lists, interrogation transcripts, and death certificates, managing to document the fates of 1,208 people who died while in custody and of 12,321 additional victims of serious human rights violations.
Brody brought Souleymane Guengueng to New York, where he was operated on multiple times, and he met with Jacqueline Moudeïna, a lawyer from the Chadian capital of N’Djamena representing the victims’ association. Alongside Guengueng and Brody, she is the third in the coalition of relentless pursuers of Habré. Now, the three spend every day in the courtroom and believe they are about to finally attain their objective. In about two months, the verdict should be announced.
The road to this courtroom has been a long one. In early 2000, a group of African human rights lawyers affiliated with Reed Brody filed the first charges against Habré, in his exiled home country of Senegal. That same year, Moudeïna initiated criminal proceedings against 20 henchmen of his regime. A third proceeding took place in Brussels, where those victims who had acquired Belgian citizenship were pursuing charges.
Yet confidence that the mass murderer might finally be brought to justice rapidly evaporated. The African Union was uninterested in going after criminal former presidents and Habré enjoyed the support of then-Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who categorically refused to extradite the former Chadian leader. As recently as July 2011, Wade’s foreign minister said that there would definitely not be a trail against Habré in Dakar.
Made of Steel
But one year leader, the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial organ of the United Nations, ordered the prosecution of Hissène Habré. In addition, a new president was elected in Senegal, the liberal reformer Macky Sall. He gave his allowance for the special tribunal in Dakar and on June 30, 2013, the ex-dictator was arrested. Once again, an investigation was opened in Chad, this time led by the tribunal judges. They questioned over 2,500 witnesses, and had mass graves exhumed. Forensic experts from Argentina analyzed the human remains.
Madame Moudeïna, 58, sits in the front row of the courtroom in Dakar, a proud woman with a severe face. Sometimes she throws a cold glance at the accused, not even five meters away. “This woman is made of steel,” says Guengueng admiringly, though his statement is literally true as well: Her body still contains metal splinters from the explosive that nearly killed her.
Jacqueline Moudeïna has received multiple death threats, her office was destroyed and her car stolen. On June 11, 2001, a hand grenade exploded at her feet, thrown by one of Habré’s henchmen against whom she had filed charges. She was seriously injured, but survived and was operated on in Brussels. After her recovery, she continued.
“I have fought for 25 years, there are still obstacles to overcome, but with God’s help we will win,” says Moudeïna in the evening after the trial. She has replaced her lawyer’s robe with a sunflower-yellow dress, a gold cross hanging from her neck. She limps slightly, has chronic pain and is almost deaf in one ear. “But they will never break me,” she says.
Where does this women get her unrelenting confidence from? Moudeïna explains that she was orphaned at a young age, and learned to overcome pain. And there was a key moment at the age of 14 when, as one of the most talented students in a Catholic girl’s boarding school, she protested against an unfair grade. The teacher, a white Frenchwoman, merely hissed: “You will always remain a negress.” The student reflexively gave the teacher a slap in the face. “This feeling for injustice has always driven me.”
Names, Faces and Voices
During Habré’s rule, Moudeïna went to Congo and studied law in Brazzaville. After her return home, she began her long offensive against the murderous elite. “The lack of punishment is a fundamental problem in Africa. I wanted to speak for the people who have no voice,” she says.
But she still needed to be careful. Habré has good connections in Dakar, and the young men in his family clan are unpredictable. For that reason, Reed Brody has organized inconspicuous bodyguards for Moudeïna and the eyewitnesses. And for himself.
The next morning, the three of them are once again sitting in the courtroom, flanked by human rights lawyers from Chad, Senegal, France, Belgium and the US. It is a strong international team that represents a total of 4,445 plaintiffs — survivors of the terror and relatives of the dead. Over 100 witnesses are to testify before the end of October.
The victims have names, faces and their own voices. They are no longer part of an anonymous mass of victims, as is so often the case when leaders violate human rights in Africa. So far, no victim has been able to confront dictators like Robert Mugabe or Omar al-Bashir without fear. At the special tribunal in Dakar, the victims are able to look the accused directly in the eye.
Every morning at 7:30, the metal gates of the Cap Manuel jail open. Heavily armed special forces transport Hissène Habré from the jail to the palace of justice in Dakar. The ex-dictator no longer offers any resistance. He sits indifferently on the defendant’s chair, as mute and inert as a stuffed dummy, as if he has crawled deep inside himself.
“I don’t feel any hatred,” says Souleymane Guengueng, “but it is good to know that this man, who had himself venerated like a god, is afraid of us.” But once Habré has received his punishment, he says, it is still only the beginning. Then we also need to charge “his comrades-in-arms in Washington,” he says. “Because they are the ones who created this monster.”