Inside a Dictator’s Secret Police

Eight years ago, Reed Brody stumbled upon the records of one of Africa's most brutal leaders, Chad's Hissène Habré. Now, two decades after he fell from power, Habré finally faces charges for his crimes -- if, that is, the trial actually happens.

For the two decades that he has been free, Souleymane Guengueng has constantly relived the two years he spent in a Chadian prison, where he watched hundreds of cellmates die from torture and disease. Thrown in jail in 1988 for still-unknown reasons, the deeply religious civil servant took an oath before God: If he ever got out alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. So when the country’s dictator fell in a 1990 coup and Guengueng walked out of prison, he used his considerable charm to persuade still-frightened victims to form an association and start preparing a case against their aggressor. But Chad’s new government brought back many of the old henchmen and allowed the former tyrant — Hissène Habré — to live in quiet luxury in Senegal.

Now, 20 years later, Habré is finally facing trial in Senegal on charges of mass murder and torture. As a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, I’ve been involved for more than a decade with the case against him, which is based in large part on Guengueng’s work compiling countless testimonies and an archive of police torture that I accidentally found in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, in 2002. It will be the first trial by the courts of one country against the former head of state of another. That is, if it actually takes place. Senegalese stalling tactics, including its $40 million budget request, are holding up the trial — and until that changes, Souleymane Guengueng won’t be the only Chadian still trapped in his country’s brutal past.

Back in 1981, it would have been hard to imagine Habré where he is today. U.S. President Ronald Reagan saw the then-warlord as a bulwark against the ambitions of Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Chad’s expansionist neighbor to the north. Habré had already earned a reputation for extreme brutality, once kidnapping a French anthropologist and then murdering the officer sent to negotiate her release. But Washington could not pass up a chance to "bloody Qaddafi’s nose," as Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly put it, and Habré’s march on N’Djamena in 1982 was buoyed by generous covert U.S. support. Once he took over, the United States provided Habré with massive military aid and used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers as members of an anti-Qaddafi force. Habré served Washington’s purpose; when the Libyans moved into northern Chad in the 1980s, Habré swiftly kicked them out. But Habré also turned his country into a police state, the legacy of which still lingers today under the current Chadian president, the man who ousted Habré, Idriss Déby.

When Habré was overthrown, he fled to Senegal, and at first, there seemed to be little hope of a reckoning for his crimes. But the 1998 London arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet buoyed the hopes of Chadian activists, including Guengueng. They asked Human Rights Watch, which participated in the Pinochet case, to assist Habré’s victims. Eager to extend the "Pinochet precedent" to other tyrants, we helped Guengueng file charges against Habré in Senegal in January 2000, and a Dakar judge soon placed the former dictator under house arrest.

In the meantime, I had begun to make frequent trips to Chad to help build the case against Habré. And one day in 2002, I stumbled upon a gold mine: While visiting the abandoned headquarters of Habré’s political police, the feared "DDS," I saw rooms with documents strewn over the floor a foot deep, covered with cobwebs. Bending down, I scooped up a file on a DDS detainee, then a report on rebel activity. Continuing through, I found lists of DDS prisoners, death certificates, interrogation reports, and identity cards. All the records of Habré’s secret police were just sitting there, apparently unnoticed for over a decade. We had found a forgotten and disheveled, but meticulously detailed, archive of Chad’s darkest period.

Habré had created the DDS by decree, ordering it to be "directly responsible to the Presidency." The force’s tasks included creating files on anyone "suspected of activities contrary to or merely detrimental to the national interest." Armed with this broad mandate, the DDS rapidly became a fine-tuned instrument of repression. The four DDS directors who led the service during Habré’s rule all came from the president’s small Gorane ethnic group; one was his own nephew. In one unearthed memo, the DDS director proudly affirmed that the DDS, "thanks to the spider’s web it has spun over the whole length of the national territory, keeps exceptional watch over the security of the State," as the "eyes and ears of the President of the Republic, whose control it is under and to whom it reports on its activities."

The documents often alluded to torture. A note concerning an alleged opposition activist stated slyly, "It was in compelling him to reveal certain truths that he died on October 14 at 8 o’clock." Another prisoner "only admitted certain facts that had been alleged against him after physical discipline was inflicted upon him." Many other documents discussed "muscular" or "heated" interrogations. Included in the files we dug up were documents about Guengueng’s detention, though nothing of consequence.

A team from Guengueng’s victims’ association spent months putting these documents together, and we sent them on to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group at the Benetech Initiative, the "statisticians of the human rights movement." Just recently, Benetech gave us the first quantitative analysis of the crimes of the Habré regime. The documents mention 12,321 victims of abuse, including the death in detention of 1,208 of them. Habré himself received 1,265 direct communications from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees. The numbers are astonishing for a country estimated to have had just 5 million people in the 1980s.

Equally important for the legal case, Benetech’s study of the document flow revealed that there was a direct superior-subordinate relationship between Habré and his secret police. In short, there’s no plausible deniability. Habré knew exactly what was going on.

Habré used some of the millions he had stolen from Chad’s treasury to build a web of protection in Senegal, and his influence weighed so heavily that, in a move denounced by the United Nations, the case in Senegal was thrown out in 2001. We then filed charges against Habré in Belgium, whose famous anti-atrocity law allows its courts to hear cases from all over the world. A Belgian judge carried out a landmark mission to Chad, picking up copies of the DDS documents. He also visited Habré’s old prisons and mass graves with Guengueng and other former detainees.

In September 2005, the Belgian judge charged Habré with crimes against humanity and requested his extradition. Senegal turned to the African Union, which in 2006 instead called on Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa," and President Abdoulaye Wade declared that his country would. But Senegal has stalled for years, refusing to act until it receives a whopping $40 million from the international community, its estimate of the cost of the trial. While investigating and proving the alleged crimes committed by Habré’s regime 20 years ago will certainly be complex and costly, there is no need, as Senegal has requested, to rebuild a courthouse or bring 500 witnesses. And in the meantime, survivors of Habré’s regime are slowing passing away. Guengueng himself was forced to take exile in New York in 2005 after receiving threats from Habré’s henchmen.

Senegal’s foot-dragging has been such that Belgium took the unprecedented step last year of filing a case against Senegal with the International Court of Justice. Either put Habré on trial or extradite him, the suit argues. Now, with the help of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, there is another push to get the trial under way. U.S. War Crimes Ambassador Stephen Rapp met recently with African Union officials to work on resolving the roadblocks, including Senegal’s budget request. A joint European Union-African Union team is scheduled to present a revised budget proposal and funding plan to Senegal soon, and Senegal has suggested that it will accept its plan.

Habré’s trial would be a wake-up call to dictators in Africa and elsewhere that if they commit similar atrocities they could also be brought to justice one day. And for the detainee whose oath has driven his every move from 1990 until today, it would finally be a measure of justice.

Reed Brody is counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. His work on the Pinochet, Habré, and Duvalier cases has been featured in four documentaries including "The Dictator Hunter."