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African trial of Chadian dictator Habré is a landmark against impunity

Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré at his trial in Senegal for crimes against humanity. EPA

The sentencing in Senegal of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, to life in prison, was a landmark judgment in African – and potentially global – justice.

After 26 years of campaigning, Habré’s victims celebrated his guilty verdict by the Extraordinary African Chambers for crimes against humanity, summary execution, torture and rape. He becomes the first former head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity by the domestic court of another country and the African Union.

It is a victory for African justice, along with campaigners and Human Rights Watch, which was instrumental in bringing him to justice. This type of prosecution has previously been carried out by international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Habré’s successful prosecution could provide a template for future trials of African dictators. Indeed, the success of this approach could be seen as a victory for African justice over international approaches. Despite the high profile of the ICC and its issuing of warrants such as those against Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, it has failed to prosecute a single head of state.

Persistence of the victims, defiance of the accused

The judgment also represents a significant milestone for Habré’s victims. Their persistence is one of the defining features of this trial. For 26 years, they have organised and agitated for justice. Their organisations collected several hundred testimonies and, with support from Human Rights Watch, continued their quest for justice.

The victims’ testimony was key to the trial, but there was also a significant cache of documents discovered by Human Rights Watch. Habré created a secret police unit known as the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), which he used to carry out some of the worst abuses against political opponents.

The tens of thousands of files found in the old police buildings included DDS details, lists of prisoners, deaths in detention and death certificates, all of which had been left untouched for at least a decade.

Habré himself remained defiant, having been dragged literally kicking and screaming into court at the beginning of the three month trial. He never recognised the court’s jurisdiction and once the verdict had been delivered, raised his arms shouting “Down with France-Afrique!”. He was referring to the former colonial power’s influence in West Africa and support for the trial.

Habré, now 73, ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, presiding over an extremely brutal regime. In 1992 a Chadian Commission of Inquiry stated that he had been responsible for the deaths of around 40,000 people. Many more were tortured and imprisoned in appalling conditions.

He also stole more than $11 million from Chad’s treasury which has allowed him to live a comfortable 26 years in exile in Senegal following his overthrow by Idriss Déby in 1990.

Numerous attempts have been made to prosecute Habré during his time in Senegal. Following the Commission of Inquiry in 1992, Chad issued a death sentence in absentia. Belgium has made at least four requests for extradition.

In July 2012, the International Court of Justice ordered Senegal either to prosecute the dictator or to extradite him. This led to Senegal collaborating with the African Union to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers, where the trial finally began in July 2015.

The trial relied on extensive testimonies from around 90 victims of the Habré regime. It included horrific details from inside an extremely brutal regime.

The verdict is significant for victims elsewhere on the continent and also the dictators who remain in power. It also vindicates those Chadian victims who carried on fighting for justice.

Time for international reflection

Driven by victims, supported by international human rights activists, the trial is also cause for the international community to reflect significantly. Ironically, it was the French and then particularly the US –- the very people Habré railed at on hearing the verdict –- who kept him in power in the first place.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has acknowledged his country’s complicity in Habré’s crimes in stating:

As a country committed to the respect for human rights and the pursuit of justice, this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad.

During the 1980s the Reagan administration identified Libya as a potential threat and was instrumental in bringing Habré to power. Then-CIA director William Casey and Secretary of State Alexander Haig supported working with Habré to take control and this was then backed up with training for the DDS and $182 million in economic and military assistance. This considerable support helped Chad expel Libyan forces and provided a useful ally for the US.

Donald Norland, the American ambassador to Chad from 1979 to 1981, told the Washington Post in 2000:

The CIA was so deeply involved in bringing Habré to power I can’t conceive they didn’t know what was going on.

The trial has enormous implications for human rights advocacy, particularly in terms of the role that survivors can play in holding abusers accountable. It is a landmark in the fight against impunity for atrocities, including crimes against humanity and sends a very powerful message to other perpetrators of mass atrocities, including current and former heads of state.

The victims experienced significant obstacles over the 26 years of fighting but they persevered and agitated in Senegal and Belgium, at the UN Committee Against Torture and the African Union.

Eventually, with support from Belgium and Human Rights Watch, the ICC encouraged Senegal, with the support of the African Union, to hold a trial that came to a successful conclusion for the victims. It shows that Africans have the capacity and the will to enforce international justice and could open the door for Africans to deliver justice to more of their own leaders.

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