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.