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Judgment Day for Hissène Habré
Twenty-five years after he fled to Senegal, Chad’s former dictator is on trial for allegedly overseeing the killing and torturing of thousands of his own people. Will his victims see justice?
This story was updated as additional information about the trial became available.
DAKAR, Senegal — In 1987, when Abdourahmane Guèye and his business partner, Demba Gaye, were unexpectedly stopped by men in military uniforms outside the N’Djamena airport in Chad, the Senegalese merchants were sure it was a case of mistaken identity.
But the Chadian men who arrested them and later threw them in prison didn’t seem to care much that the two visitors had visas and the legal authority to be in Chad. That’s because the military officers were henchmen of then-Chadian dictator Hissène Habré’s notorious police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate, which is allegedly responsible for participating in the torturing and killing of upwards of 40,000 people over the course of Habré’s eight-year reign.
On Monday, July 20, Habré, who fled to Senegal after he was overthrown by current Chadian President Idriss Déby in 1990, faced his first day of trial in a Senegalese court. He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.
Despite speculation over whether he would show up to the courthouse at all, Habré attended Monday’s opening ceremony — only to be removed from the courtroom after reportedly screaming, “Down with imperialists. [The trial] is a farce by rotten Senegalese politicians. African traitors. Valet of America!”
But when the trial was set to continue later on Monday, Habré refused to show up. That prompted the court’s president to announce that a bailiff would bring Habré to court by force on Tuesday.
In an even stranger twist of events, after he was forcibly brought to court Tuesday, his lawyers failed to show. The special tribunal trying him within Senegal’s court system then appointed three new lawyers to his case, but gave the new legal team 45 days to prepare, pushing the long-anticipated trial date to September 7.
This is inevitably a major frustration for victims like Guèye, who three decades after his arrest is one of at least 100 victims and witnesses of the former Chadian dictator’s torture prisons who is expected to testify at the 72-year-old’s trial in Dakar. Habré’s trial marks the first time in history that an African leader is being tried in another country’s court system for human rights violations.
After they were stopped outside the airport, Guèye and Gaye — the only two Senegalese victims known to have been imprisoned by Habré’s secretive police — were forcibly transported to a government building, separated from each other, stripped of their belongings, and accused of spying on Chad for Muammar al-Qaddafi, then Libya’s strongman.
That was the last time Guèye saw his friend alive.
He then spent seven months crammed into a cell with close to 40 other prisoners, many of whom he said were regularly tortured or taken away at night for execution.
When he told his cellmates that he wanted a lawyer, another prisoner, a Chadian army captain, looked at him and spoke in a soft voice. “He said, ‘My brother, there aren’t lawyers here,’” Guèye recalled during an hourlong conversation with Foreign Policy at a hotel in downtown Dakar in March. “’There isn’t justice here,'” Guèye said the captain told him. The prison, the captain added, “‘belongs to Hissène Habré.’”
Guèye was released from the prison after diplomatic intervention from Senegalese officials later that year. Gaye wasn’t so lucky: He died in prison before Senegal could negotiate his release.
Despite alarming reports of human rights violations occurring in Chad, Habré enjoyed backing from U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who depended on Habré to counter Qaddafi’s growing threat in Libya.
Habré benefited from the U.S. support — which included the arming and training of his security forces — during his bloody years in power, and he later lived freely in Senegal for years. His downfall was chronicled by Foreign Policy in January 2014.
His years of comfortable exile in Dakar began to unravel in 2000, when he was placed under house arrest after a Senegalese court indicted him for political murders and systemic torture. But after Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade took office, the charges against Habré were quickly dropped. In 2005, Belgium requested his extradition from Senegal after a number of victims who had relocated there from Chad filed complaints against him in Brussels. A Senegalese court later ruled that it lacked the jurisdiction to extradite Habré, but he was ordered not to travel outside of Senegal.
In 2011, Belgium filed two more extradition requests, and in 2012, Belgium tried again, asking Senegal to either extradite him or prosecute him itself.
The African Union resisted the idea of extradition and saw Habré’s arrest as an opportunity for Senegal to set an example by holding an African leader accountable on his home continent instead of sending him to an international court in Europe.
But the founding of a special criminal court and the launch of the trial have forced the West African nation into a uniquely Senegalese conundrum. As a state that prides itself on both its progressive human rights policies and its over-the-top hospitality (known in Wolof as teranga), many Senegalese were torn about whether it was right to disrupt Habré’s peaceful life in Dakar by bringing up crimes from his past.
Despite a general understanding of the crimes Habré allegedly committed in Chad, it has taken years for many in Senegal to come to terms with the idea of his arrest and trial.
Wade was reluctant to ever place the former dictator under house arrest and spent years making excuses that Senegal was unfit to host him in a separate tribunal. The Senegalese government stalled setting up the African Union-backed tribunal until 2012, when newly elected President Macky Sall was condemned by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and finally gave it a nod.
Even after that, Habré was not formally arrested until June 30, 2013.
When Senegal’s National Assembly voted in 2012 to approve the law that would allow for the creation of the special court, one lawmaker even cited teranga as the reason for his no vote.
“The Senegalese tradition of hospitality does not permit me to vote in favor of this law,” said Sokhna Dieng Mbacké. “Habré is our guest. He lives among us.”
For Guèye, who today is nearly as old as Habré, using teranga or Habré’s old age as a reason to excuse him from a fair trial is infuriating. The creases in his wrinkly forehead rose up and down as he, wearing a cream-colored boubou, slowly described how he lost his livelihood and nearly his life to Habré’s prison.
“All I was left with were my pants and my shirt,” Guèye told FP during the March conversation.
Despite initial resistance from some Senegalese, Guèye, with the help of human rights lawyers, began speaking openly about his experience. That helped his neighbors better understand why charging and trying Habré was the only route to justice.
“My neighborhood really held me up and supported me,” he said. “When I spoke in Wolof about what I had lived through, what I had seen and said, people started to understand that the truth was going to come out.”
Guèye showed up with 50 family members and friends to the first day of the trial, which was expected to last around three months even before the additional 45-day delay.
His presence at the trial is particularly significant because of Gaye’s death in the Chadian prison, which left Guèye as the only living tie between Senegal and the Chadian prisons.
“I’ll be very happy to stand before [Habré], to explain what I lived through and what his [Documentation and Security Directorate] agents did to me,” Guèye said.
But Habré has not made it easy for Guèye to have his moment in court.
Since the tribunal was inaugurated in 2013, Habré has aggressively claimed that it is illegitimate and has made clear that he will refuse to participate in the trial.
Reed Brody, the Human Rights Watch lawyer who has led the charge on Habré’s case since 1999 and has been working with the victims, told FP that the onetime military strongman is also doing everything in his power to influence how spectators view the trial.
“His narrative is that this is all a witch hunt, that it’s all politically motivated, and it’s all Idriss Déby,” Brody said, referring to Habré. “So to the extent that people get to see the case that is put on, hopefully their minds will change about that.”
And because a French trial starts with testimonies to the defendant’s character, it would be in Habré’s benefit to sit through the processes calmly.
Otherwise, Brody said, “it plays up the courage of the victims and makes Hissène Habré look like a coward.”
Image credit: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images