Moral Low Ground


Former US-Backed Chadian Dictator Hissène Habré Arrested in Senegal & Charged with War Crimes, Genocide

Hissène Habré (Photo: Rwandan Government)

Hissène Habré (Photo: Rwandan Government)

A former US-backed dictator of Chad has been arrested in Senegal and charged with crimes against humanity for severe human rights violations committed during his eight-year rule.

The Guardian reports Hissène Habré was apprehended on Tuesday by paramilitary troops from a Senegalese rapid intervention force at his opulent villa in the capital city of Dakar. Habré, 70, has lived with impunity in Senegal since he was overthrown in a 1990 coup.

Deutsche Welle reports Habré will be tried in a special Senegalese court for charges including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture.

Habré’s forces engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Hadjerai, Sara and Zaghawa peoples, who the dictator believed posed a threat to his rule.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Habré regime “was responsible for thousands of cases of political killings, torture, ‘disappearances’ and arbitrary detention.” Habré created a dreaded secret police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), which arrested, tortured and executed the regime’s political opponents.

A Truth Commission established after Habré’s overthrow concluded that the dictator’s regime produced “more than 40,000 victims, more than 80,000 orphans [and] more than 30,000 widows.”

Habré seized power in 1982 with CIA help and the backing of US President Ronald Reagan, who saw the tyrant as a bulwark against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Chad’s northern neighbor. Habré was one of many brutal dictators supported by the Reagan administration. In 1980, Libya invaded Chad. The US, along with France, provided Habré with large amounts of military aid and diplomatic support despite being aware of the regime’s horrific human rights violations.

“[Habré] was… a bloodthirsty tyrant and torturer,” said one US official in 2000. “It was fair to say we knew who and what he was and chose to turn a blind eye.”

The Reagan administration did much more than just ‘turn a blind eye.’ It provided DDS with training, intelligence, weapons and other aid despite being fully aware of the atrocities being committed.

“The CIA was so deeply involved in bringing Habré to power that I can’t conceive they didn’t know what was going on,” Donald Norland, the US ambassador to Chad from 1979-1981, once said. “But there was no debate on the policy and virtually no discussion of the wisdom of doing what we did.”

Bolstered by massive US and French aid, Habré’s forces enjoyed a large measure of battlefield success against the Libyans. This further endeared the dictator to Reagan, who invited him to the White House in 1987. Reagan declared it was “an honor and a great pleasure” to have the murderous dictator as his guest and hailed “the friendship between Chad and the United States [which] reflects our shared commitment to freedom.”

Human rights advocates, as well as the Habré regime’s victims, were elated at the news of the ex-dictator’s arrest.

“The wheels of justice are turning,” Reed Brody, an American human rights lawyer who has dedicated more than a decade of his life to bringing Habré to justice. “After 22 years, Habré’s victims can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Brody told the Guardian.

“This regime was completely inhuman– they were worse than animals,” Souleymane Guengueng, a former bookkeeper who was hung from his testicles while being tortured in one of the regime’s secret prisons, told the Guardian.

US President Barack Obama praised Senegal for its effort to capture and prosecute Habré while visiting Dakar last week. The US State Department also pledged $1 million toward the cost of Habré’s trial.

That trial, if it proceeds as planned, will set an historic global precedent– it will be the first time that a court in one country tries the head of state of another country for human rights violations. Until now, such trials have only occurred in international courts.

Habré is the latest former US-backed dictator to be arrested and tried for crimes against humanity. In May, Efraín Ríos Montt, a Guatemalan general, was found guilty of genocide in connection with the torture, rape and murder of thousands of indigenous Mayans in the early 1980s. More than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed by US-backed military dictatorships during the course of that country’s 36-year civil war that followed the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.

Reagan called Ríos Montt, whose troops raped pregnant women and girls before cutting the fetuses from their wombs, “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice.”

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