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How victims brought a cruel dictator to justice

Journalists for Justice / 02 May 2017



How victims brought a dictator to justice

By Susan Kendi

A teachable moment presents itself for African strongmen in the trial and prosecution of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, whose appeal against conviction failed today.

Habré’s is the first case where a former African head of state has been tried under extraterritorial jurisdiction. Coming 25 years[1] after he was deposed, and despite political and legal hiccups, a surly[2] Habré was brought face to face with his victims before the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal on July 20, 2015.

As the appeals chamber makes a final determination on Habré’s fate, it is fitting to reflect on how the trial has empowered other survivors of atrocities that go silent in fear of death and persecution. It has served as a wake up call for them that persistence, unity and holding on to hope always bears fruit. The moral arc of the universe, like the man said[3], does indeed bend toward justice.

After judgment was delivered on May 30, 2016, Habré’s court-appointed lawyers appealed the conviction as the victims’ cross-appealed the decision on compensation. The decision in the appeal on Habré’s conviction was delivered in Dakar, upholding the trial chamber’s decision.

Burkinabe Gberdao Gustave Kam, Chief Judge of the EAC, read a summary of the decision by the three-judge panel. The Chamber, basing its decision on Senegalese law, found Habré guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture, for which it sentenced him to life imprisonment.

The court also ordered Habré to pay 90 million Euros as reparations to the victims and awarded the survivors of his regime money, depending on the kind of atrocity committed against them. Survivors of rape and sexual slavery received the highest award of 30,490 Euros and the heirs of deceased victims received the least award of 15,243 Euros.


Television spectacle

Because the proceedings were recorded with three cameras, streamed on the Internet and broadcast on Chadian television, the former dictator’s trial was something of a television spectacle when it commenced on July 20, 2015. It started with unprecedented scenes of Habré being removed to and from the court even before the trial opening.

Habré, once a ruthless dictator who gave no quarter to his critics, tried fretfully to shut down the proceedings by ordering his lawyers not to appear before the EAC because he considered it illegitimate. However, his objections about the court’s legitimacy seemed to only pose a minor inconvenience as the EAC appointed three Senegalese lawyers to defend him, and adjourned the hearing for 45 days to allow them to prepare.

Habré was not done with his sulking antics yet. A day after the court recess, he was forcibly dragged into court, kicking and screaming. Apart from the outbursts at the beginning and end of trial, Habré was silent, hiding his face behind a turban and sunglasses, avoiding eye contact with witnesses who testified against him in court.

The EAC sat for 56 days and listened to 93 witnesses, two thirds of them survivors of Habré’s regime. Additionally, the court heard from expert witnesses who included historians, a French doctor who treated 581 torture victims, the Belgian judge who investigated the complaint against Habré in Belgium, former members of Habré's secret police -- the Directorate de Documentation et Securité (DDS), forensic, statistical and handwriting experts, researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and the President of the Chadian Truth Commission of 1992. 


Tenacity of victims and activists rewarded

That the trial of Habré' happened at all is testament to the tenacity of victims like Souleymane Guengueng[4] and human rights activists like Reed Brody,[5] who continuously mobilized and campaigned for justice despite numerous political hurdles.

In the year 2000, some survivors of Habré’s regime filed complaints against him in Senegal and a Senegalese judge placed him under house arrest, while others filed complaints in Chad and Belgium.

On April 17, 2001, Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade asked Habré to leave Senegal but victims filed a case against Senegal with the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) calling on Senegal to take all measures to prevent Habré from leaving the country except if it was in accordance with an extradition demand.

A Senegalese court ruled that it was not competent to decide on the extradition request and referred the matter to the African Union (AU) Summit. The AU appointed a committee of distinguished African jurists to consider the angles, implications and alternatives in Habré case.

The committee of distinguished jurists proposed that Habré be prosecuted in Senegal and an amendment of the Senegalese law to grant the court’s extraterritorial jurisdiction over international crimes.

The AU proposed a plan for an “extraordinary chambers” in the Senegal courts and with the AU appointing a non-citizen as the Court of Appeal president. Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, rejected this proposal before getting into talks with the AU, that led to an agreement but on May 2011 Senegal withdrew from the negotiations.

Wade made a deal with Rwanda for Habré’s to be referred there for trial but the victim’s lead lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, and the president of the victims’ association in Chad, Clément Aboifouta, travelled to Rwanda and convinced the  government to reject the idea.

Wade announced that he would to be sending Habré back to Chad but later made a U-turn because of Habré’s lawyers’ disapproval. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights and the Coalition in Chad also argued that Habré would not receive a fair trial in Chad and might actually be assassinated.

In 2012, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Senegal should submit Habré’s case to the competent authorities for prosecution if they did not extradite him. On July 24, the same year, Senegal and the AU agreed on the establishment of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in the Senegalese Courts.

On February 8, 2013, the EAC was instituted and Habré placed under police custody. On July 2, that year, Habré was charged with war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity. The wheels of justice were finally in motion.

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