Talking Justice: The Long Road to the Extraordinary African Chambers

Talking Justice: The Long Road to the Extraordinary African Chambers

Souleymane Guengueng, now in his sixties, took the witness stand in a court room in Senegal in November last year. He spoke calmly and steadily about the things he had suffered 25 years ago at the hands of the regime of Hissène Habré, the former ruler of the central African state of Chad.

He testified about being thrown into the horrendous prisons operated by Habré’s security police in 1988. He described those who were tortured, those who were taken away at night, and those who died of sickness and mistreatment. And he talked about the oath he had taken 25 years ago: “From the depths of my cell, from the depths of that madness, I took an oath before God that if I got out alive, I would fight for justice.”

Souleymane Guengueng’s powerful testimony was delivered just feet away from Hissène Habré himself, sitting impassively, wrapped in a white robe and a turban, his eyes concealed behind sunglasses.

The dramatic trial of Habré marks a remarkable success for international justice in Africa—the first time a former African leader has been held to account for atrocity crimes before a court in another African country.

Habré, who has refused to recognize the authority of the court, is facing charges of war crimes, torture, and crimes against humanity, arising from his eight years in power, from 1982 to 1990. He is on trial before a special court, the African Extraordinary Chambers, that was set up in Senegal with the support of the African Union, and which is presided over by Gberdao Gustave Kam from Burkina Faso, with two Senegalese judges alongside.  

From the opening of the trial in July last year until December, more than 90 witnesses have taken the stand, like Souleymane Guengueng, testifying to the violence Habré inflicted on his own people; he is accused of responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands killed and tortured in waves of political repression, and in brutal campaigns waged against regional rivals.

The trial in Senegal is the outcome of a sustained international effort to bring a vicious dictator to account for his crimes—an effort all the more noteworthy given the current tensions within Africa over the role of the International Criminal Court.  

You can learn more about the story of Hissène Habré and the Extraordinary African Chambers in the latest edition of our monthly Talking Justice podcast. Host Jim Goldston talks to Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who worked with Souleymane Guengueng and others on the 25-year struggle to bring Hissène Habré to justice.

Learn More

Transcript

Show transcript  

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

You’re listening to Talking Justice with me, Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. This month our story is focused on a courtroom in the west African state of Senegal.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The trial of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad in north central Africa, opened in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, in July of last year. Habré is charged with crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes. He’s appearing before a special court established with the support of the African Union, the extraordinary African chambers in the courts of Senegal.

The trial is the culmination of a remarkable effort to bring a dictator to account for his crimes. We have with us today someone who played a big role in that story: Reed Brody, lawyer and advocate with Human Rights Watch. But first, who is Hissène Habré and why is this trial so important?

Back in 1989, a military band plays during a parade in a small town in eastern Chad, organized to demonstrate support for President Habré. A former warlord from the north, Habré had once studied political science in Paris before returning to engage in Chad’s fractious politics.

In 1982, with U.S. Government backing, he seized power in the capital, N’Djamena. Soon afterwards, Habré faced a military challenge from rivals supported by Libyan forces who had been sent to Chad by Libya’s general, Muammar Gaddafi. As the pressure grew, Habré appealed for help and he got it from Washington and Paris, both eager at the time to contain General Gaddafi.

(PRERECORDED MATERIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

France’s support for its former colony included ground troops, armored vehicles, and fighter aircraft. By 1987, Libyan forces had largely been driven out of the north of Chad.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

In the summer of 1990, just months before he was himself forced from power, President Habré declared that he was committed to democratic reform and the rule of law. The reality was far different. Under his rule, thousands died in seven secret detention centers in the capital, operated by the directorate of documentation and security, and in other prisons across the country. Many fell victim to malnutrition, disease, torture or outright execution.

In December, 1990, Hissène Habré fled Chad and ended up seeking refuge in Senegal. For years, his victims and their lawyers sought Habré’s prosecution for the crimes committed during his rule in Chad, but Senegal’s government declined to prosecute or to send Habré elsewhere.

During this time, while other former rulers, like Chile’s Pinochet and Yugoslavia’s Milosevic, were ultimately brought to account, Habré’s impunity stood out. A long and dogged campaign through courts in Senegal, Belgium, and The Hague ultimately led to the creation of the extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar, where Habré went on trial last year.

Final arguments in the case were heard in February and a judgment is expected in May. Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch was closely involved in the long struggle for justice by Habré’s victims and he joins us now. Welcome, Reed.

REED BRODY:

Thank you.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Reed, how did you get involved in the effort to bring Habré to trial?

REED BRODY:

Well, this came out of the case of Augusto Pinochet, the former of Chile. In 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London on a warrant from a Spanish judge for crimes committed 25 years earlier in Chile. And he challenged his detention before the British court.

And when the House of Lords ruled that Pinochet could be arrested and extradited anywhere in the world, despite his status as a former Head of State, we realized that we had an instrument in international justice and we were contacted by people from all over the world to see if their Pinochets could be brought to justice.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And so why Hissène Habré in Chad? Why did he attract your attention or how did that happen?

REED BRODY:

Well, Delfine Jahiba of the Chadian Association of Human Rights came and talked to us about Hissène Habré, who was in exile in Senegal. And what particularly interested us was not only the evidence of his alleged crimes and the willingness of Chadian organizations, but the fact that he was in an African country, Senegal, which is the first country to ratify the ICC treaty and a leader in human rights. And we felt that if an African country could exercise universal jurisdiction, then this principle could in fact be really universalized.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And what did you do following that recognition?

REED BRODY:

Well, we’ve been working alongside the Chadian victims for the last 17 years, actually, as they have mounted this relentless campaign. First they filed a case in Senegal. Habré was actually arrested for the first time in Senegal in February 2000. But it took another 13 years of campaigning. First, the case was thrown out in Senegal. The victims went to Belgium.

The president of Senegal wanted to expel Habré. The victims got a ruling from the U.N. Committee Against Torture to keep him there. It wasn’t until 2012 when the international court of justice ordered Senegal, in a case brought by Belgium, to extradite or prosecute Habré, and Mackey Sall defeated Abdoulaye Wade and became president of Senegal, that the political conditions were finally there for Senegal and the African Union to create this tribunal which prosecuted Habré.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So can you just say a little bit about how the Extraordinary African Chambers was in fact created?

REED BRODY:

The victims always sought to bring Hissène Habré before the Senegalese regular courts, but because of a ruling by the ECOWAS Court of Justice that required international presence, Senegal and the African Union came together to create these Extraordinary African Chambers and to try Hissène Habré in the name of Africa, which makes it even more dynamic and more important in many ways. This is a court mostly staffed by Senegalese, but the president of the trial court, and potentially the president of the appeals court, come from another African country and are named by the chairperson of the African Union.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And, now, you’ve been attending the trial in Dakar that began last summer. Can you give us a sense of what it’s like in the courtroom and how Habré himself has been responding to the trial?

REED BRODY:

Well, it’s a very dramatic trial. I mean, a lot of unscripted courtroom drama. Hissène Habré himself rejects the tribune and he actually had to be brought in literally kicking and screaming and held down in his chair the first day. And after that, he basically draped himself in a turban and behind sunglasses and kept silent throughout the entire trial.

His lawyers refused to show up, and he had to have court appointed lawyers representing him. But the victims were very active, not just testifying, but also as protagonists. And many victims on the stand expressed their pride to be describing what happened to them while Hissène Habré, the man who was their dictator—who tried, as one of the women said, “to make a thing out of her,”—had to sit there and listen. So it was not a trial in which you were watching the grass grow. This was very dramatic stuff.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The trial went on for several months, is that right?

REED BRODY:

There were 53 trial days and about 96 witnesses.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And when can we expect to get a verdict?

REED BRODY:

The verdict will be on May 30.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Now, Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, was once—if I understand correctly—a close ally of Hissène Habré, who even served as Habré’s army chief during a period of terrible repression in southern Chad in 1984. Now, the Extraordinary African Chambers was set up to try the person or persons most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad. Why is Habré the only individual who’s been brought to trial?

REED BRODY:

That’s an excellent question. The victims have always been seeking to bring Habré to trial. He was the Head of State, he was the person who set up the police, he was the person who was receiving daily reports about the status of prisoners.

But Idriss Déby, and many others, did serve under Hissène Habré. And when the special tribunal was set up, it wasn’t set up just to try Habré, but to set up the person or persons. And at that point, the Chadian government, which up until then had been very supportive of the case—it had waved any immunity that Hissène Habré might claim, it had allowed first the Belgians and then the special court to investigate in Chad, it actually was the leading single financial backer of the court together with the U.S. and western countries—but when the judges went past Habré and started looking around for other people, you could see that the government of Chad had cold feet and it refused to transfer some of the other people who are wanted by the court.

It refused to allow many of Habré’s accomplices who have actually been convicted in a parallel trial propelled by the victims back in Chad. It refused to allow them to come and testify and, I think, for many people, it left a bad taste—the fact that other people around Habré were not prosecuted. But of course, in most international trials, whether it be Milosevic or Rios Montt or Charles Taylor, people are tried individually for their alleged individual responsibility.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

You mentioned that you got involved, initially in part, not solely because of the gravity of what had happened in Chad, but because of what this represented for the principle of international justice. International justice has become a rather fraught issue in some parts of Africa. To what extent is the fact that the court supported by African Union is putting on trial a former African Head of State, how does that affect the future of accountability for senior leaders on the African continent, would you say?

REED BRODY:

I think the first thing to see is that the architects of this justice effort was not the African Union. It was not the security council. It was not a prosecutor in The Hague. It was the victims. And this case more than anything shows that with tenacity and perseverance, a group of survivors and international NGOs can actually create the political conditions to bring a dictator to justice, whether in Africa or elsewhere.

And that’s something you cannot put back in the bottle. The African Union became a big ally in this case. The victims were able to make the case to the African Union: You’re saying that you don’t want African leaders to be tried in The Hague or elsewhere. Well, you need to show that they can be tried in Africa.

And the AU actually lobbied Senegal very heavily to create this court. So I think it’s a positive step. It doesn’t negate the need for the international criminal court or for ad-hoc tribunals. There needs to be a multiplicity of avenues towards accountability.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

What would you say to the charge that this is a case of a western, New York–based, international organization charging in and forcing justice in a way that does not emerge locally, did not emerge organically out of the conditions of its own place?

REED BRODY:

You know, we played an important role—and I’m proud of the role we played—but we were not there when Souleymane Guengueng, from the depths of his prison, as people were dying around him, took an oath before God that if he got out, he would fight for justice. We were not there when the victims association organized to seek justice.

But I don’t think you can expect that Chadian victims can fight for 16 years against a former dictator, who emptied out their country’s treasury and has political allies and millions at his disposal, without the assistance of international activists and Chadian activists.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Have we seen any evidence? Have you seen any evidence of the effect of this trial in inspiring other victims to seek justice in other places?

REED BRODY:

Absolutely. Jacqueline Moudeina, the lawyer for the victims—a woman who was almost assassinated by one of Habré’s accomplices who was serving under Idriss Déby as a police chief, but who has persevered to lead the victims—she’s been invited to Guinea to talk to the high court there about the cases for the stadium massacre from many years ago.

People can look at this and see that it is possible in a way that a security council referral or a prosecutor in The Hague is not an experience that they can replicate or that they can repeat. So we’re seeing people, particularly in Africa, look at this as something that can be done.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Thank you very much, Reed, for joining us today.

REED BRODY:

You’re welcome.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

As just mentioned, we expect the judgment in this case against former president Hissène Habré to come out next month marking another milestone in this extraordinary story about justice and accountability. I’m Jim Goldston. Please join me next month for another edition of Talking Justice.

Hide transcript