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The long arm of justice catches up with Habré

By Victoria Ojugbana (with Agency report)
02 June 2016   |   1:02 am
The former Chadian dictator, who ruled from 1982 to 1990, went on trial on July 20, 2015, on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese courts,
Former president of Chad, Hissene Habre, acknowledging cheers from his supporters

Former president of Chad, Hissene Habre, acknowledging cheers from his supporters

The sentencing of former president Hissène Habré to life in prison by a special court in Dakar, Senegal, on Monday has indeed brought hope to Chadians and entire Africans that all leaders who perpetrate evil against their people will finally be brought to justice.

The cries of joy in the Dakar courtroom said it all. The fact that the victims of Habré’s regime and their supporters waited patiently until the presiding Judge Gustave Gberdao Kam closed the session and dissolved the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) before erupting into ululations and euphoria was perhaps a testimony to the respect everyone has shown for the court over the past 10 months.

The former Chadian dictator, who ruled from 1982 to 1990, went on trial on July 20, 2015, on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese courts, a special criminal court set up by the African Union within the West African nation’s court system. The trial is the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.

The advent of the trial, 25 years after Habré was overthrown and fled to Senegal, is entirely due to the perseverance and tenacity of Habré’s victims and their allies such as Human Rights Watch. Calling it “a Milestone for Justice in Africa, Monday’s judgment demonstrates that victims of human rights abuses – no matter how hopeless their situation may be – can still have a voice and the ability to achieve justice.

The judgment also demonstrates that the work of campaigners and human rights defenders – no matter how long and challenging – really matters. And it demonstrates that heads of state, military commanders and others who are suspected of committing human rights violations around the globe can no longer expect to evade the net of international justice forever.

Safe havens are no longer safe for those suspected of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity or other crimes under international law.

Habre faced a 25-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former leader to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup in the central African nation.

“Hissene Habre, this court finds you guilty of crimes against humanity, rape, forced slavery, and kidnapping,” as well as war crimes, said Kam, Burkinabe president of the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) court.

 “The court condemns you to life in prison,” Kam added, giving

Habre 15 days to appeal against the sentence.

Habre, who raised his arms into the air on hearing the verdict, shouted: “Down with France-afrique!”, referring to the term used for France’s continuing influence on its former colonies.

Human rights groups have accused the 72-year-old of being responsible for the deaths of 40,000 people during his rule from 1982 to 1990.

The judgment brings hope to other survivors, other activists to be inspired by what Habre’s victims have been able to do.

Victim groups who had travelled to Dakar to hear the verdict were visibly moved by a judgment that came a quarter century after the abuses they suffered.

 “The feeling is one of complete satisfaction,” said Clement Abeifouta, president of a Habre Survivors’ Association.

“Hissene Habre’s conviction for these horrific crimes after 25 years is a huge victory for his Chadian victims, without whose tenacity this trial never would have happened. This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalise their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury are coming to an end. Today will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their dictator to justice,” wrote Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.

After the fall of Habre’s administration, more than 50,000 letters and postcards from Amnesty International members calling for the release of detainees were found at the main security headquarters in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

A quarter of a century on, many of those named in those letters were not there to see the verdict. Thousands have died in 1980s.

However, for the survivors, and for all who believe in human rights and rule of law, Monday’s verdict is deeply significant.

“It is moments like these that we can draw on in darker times. They are the things that nourish us with hope and give us strength to stand up for what is right.

“Today’s verdict will give renewed energy in the fight against impunity for crimes committed during Habre’s administration, which will continue until all those responsible for crimes under international law are brought to justice,” said one of the witnesses in court.

Dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet” because of the atrocities committed during his eight-year rule, Hissene’s government according to a commission of inquiry formed in Chad after he was deposed in 1990, carried out some 40,000 politically-motivated murders and 200,000 cases of torture in the eight years he was in power.

His dreaded political police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), committed some of the worst abuses.

Habre, born into a family of shepherds, is a member of the Anakaza branch of the Daza ethnic group, which is itself a branch of the Toubou ethnic group, denied any knowledge of the murders, torture, and rape that he was convicted of.

The Chadian former president seized power in 1982 from Goukouni Oueddei, an erstwhile rebel comrade who had won elections.

It was widely believed that he was backed by the CIA, as a bulwark against Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

His coup came in the middle of a war with Libya over the disputed Aozou strip.

On 15 August 2008, a Chadian court had sentenced Habré to death in absentia for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with allegations that he had worked with rebels inside Chad to oust President Idriss Déby. Habre first came to the world’s attention in 1974 when a group of his rebels captured three European hostages and demanded a ransom of 10 million francs. One of the hostages, French ethnologist Francoise Claustre, was held for 33 months in the caves of the Tibesti volcanic complex of northern Chad.

However, this episode did not prevent the French government from later backing Mr. Habre.

Habre was eventually deposed by President Idriss Deby, an ethnic Zaghawa, who has been accused of favouring members of his own community.

After being ousted, Habre, who fled to exile in Senegal, where kept a low profile, however, became involved with the local Tijaniyya Islamic sect. He is married and four of his children were born in Senegal.

A coalition of human rights organisations and victims’ groups in Chad spent decades gathering testimonies from victims and their families to build the case against Habre.

National and regional campaigns were set up, supported by international organisations such as Amnesty International, which helped document human rights violations committed in Chad since the 1980s.

Attempts to prosecute or extradite the former president to Belgium were repeatedly thwarted, as were efforts to force Senegal to prosecute him. But victims groups and campaigners battled on and in 2012, the African Union supported Senegal in finally clearing the path to justice.

A new law was passed in December 2012 allowing for the creation of the CAE in Dakar. Habre was arrested six months later and on July 20, 2015, he appeared for the first time in the courtroom.

Over the following months the charges contained in the 187-page indictment against Habre were tested in court. These included crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes.