Moral Low Ground


Crimes Against Humanity Trial of Former US-Backed Chadian Dictator Hissène Habré Begins in Senegal

Hissène Habré (Photo: Rwandan Government)

Hissène Habré (Photo: Rwandan Government)

Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, is now on trial in Senegal for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed during his brutal, US- and French-supported rule.

The historic trial of Habré, who is 72 years old, marks the first time a court in an African nation has prosecuted the former ruler of another African country for human rights crimes. It follows a 25-year effort to bring him to justice.

The Guardian reports the trial opened at the Palais de Justice in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, as the former dictator was escorted into the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) courtroom to loud shouting by his supporters. Habré shouted “God is greatest” and condemned the proceedings as he waited for his trial to begin.

“Down with imperialists,” Habré bellowed in court, adding that the trial “is a farce by rotten Senegalese politicians [and] African traitors.” He was then removed from the courtroom and the trial commenced without him. The BBC reports Habré refused to return after the recess following opening statements, and the trial was suspended until Tuesday when he would be forced to attend.

The former dictator, who lived in exile in Senegal for 24 years after his ouster until he was arrested and charged two years ago, does not recognize the court’s authority, which is based on the international law concept of universal jurisdiction. EAC was established by the African Union, and ended 12 years of legal battles over Habré’s prosecution.

There have been several failed attempts to prosecute Habré in Senegal as well as in Belgium, a leading proponent of universal jurisdiction. But former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade failed to act on an indictment by a Senegalese judge, with a breakthrough coming only after Macky Sall was elected president in 2012. Meanwhile, the African Union encouraged member states to embrace universal jurisdiction and try war crimes cases. The International Criminal Court (ICC) never indicted Habré because the crimes he stands accused of committing, authorizing, or overseeing occurred prior to 2002, when its legal statute took effect.

Dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet” after Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile—another brutal dictator who also gained and maintained power thanks to strong American support, Habré stands accused of presiding over a network of secret police, the dreaded DDS (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité), who kidnapped, tortured and executed thousands of Chadians.

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, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko, and the perpetrators of genocides in East Timor and Central America, 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 Habré as his guest and hailed “the friendship between Chad and the United States [which] reflects our shared commitment to freedom.”

Human rights advocates hailed the start of Habré’s trial.

“Finally, finally, the men who brutalized us and then laughed in our faces for decades have got their comeuppance,” Clément Abaifouta, president of the Chadian Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré, told the Guardian.

“This case is a wakeup call to tyrants that if they engage in atrocities they will never be out of the reach of their victims,” Reed Brody, senior legal counsel at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian.

If convicted, Habré, who denies the charges against him, faces life in prison, as well as a fine.

Habré is the latest former Reagan-backed dictator to be arrested and tried for crimes against humanity. In 2013, Efraín Ríos Montt, a Guatemalan general, was convicted 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.

President 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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