WrongingRightsNotes™: Hissène Habré Edition!

Have you seen recent news coverage of Hissène Habré’s arrest and/or Seinfeld-watching habits and thought to yourself “Huh? Who?”

Did you greet the news of his indictment by the Extraordinary African Chambers with a yawn and a muttered “Is there a reason I should care about this?”

Do you ever wonder what Reed Brody‘s always on about anyway?

Well, good news, everyone! I have answers to all these questions and more.

First, the basics: Hissène Habré became president of Chad when he seized power from the elected leadership in 1982. He ruled until 1990, when he was himself deposed in a coup. (Payback’s a bitch, eh?) Habré’s reign was characterized by extreme brutality against the political opposition, ethnic minorities, and anyone considered a potential threat to regime security. His secret police have been accused by the country’s truth commission of a mind-boggling 40,000 extrajudicial killings, as well as widespread and systematic torture.

Following his ouster, Habré fled to Senegal, where he apparently lived a luxurious life of must-see-TV reruns and being a dick about garbage cans. Meanwhile, his victims and their advocates got serious about pursuing justice. In 2000, following the UK’s ground-breaking arrest of Augusto Pinochet on a Spanish warrant for human rights abuses committed during his dictatorship in Chile, victims of the Habré regime filed a criminal complaint in Dakar, Senegal. Thirteen years later, Habré will finally stand trial. Here’s what went on in the meantime:

  • In 2000, a Senegalese court indicts Habré for torture and crimes against humanity.
  • Habré lawyers up, and cleverly argues that the Senegalese courts can’t exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed by foreign nationals on foreign territory.
  • In 2001, amidst accusations of political interference from President Abdoulaye Wade (who may or may not have been paid off by Habré), an appellate court dismisses the charges for lack of jurisdiction, on the grounds that Senegal had not passed domestic legislation implementing the Convention Against Torture.
  • President Wade decides Habré’s ongoing presence in Senegal has gotten a bit embarrassing, asks him to go stay on someone else’s couch for a while.
  • The victims get nervous and file a complaint against Senegal with the Committee Against Torture. The Committee tells Wade in no uncertain terms that he’s not getting rid of Habré by any means other than a legal extradition.
  • Victims’ lawyer Reed Brody, in Chad on an evidence-gathering mission in 2002, happens upon a treasure trove of abandoned secret police files, which demonstrate both Habré’s control of the organization, and its use of torture. (If there’s anything to love about abusive secret police operations, it’s that they always find it necessary to meticulously record stuff like “It was in compelling him to reveal certain truths that he died on October 14 at 8 o’clock.”)
  • In 2005, Belgium decides it wants in on this party, and indicts Habré on crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture charges pursuant to a complaint filed by victims in 2001.
  • Belgium requests Habré’s extradition. Senegal refuses because of…reasons, then gets stressed out and decides to kick the tough decisions upstairs to the African Union.
  • Senegal regrets deferring to the African Union when, in July of 2006, the AU issues a decision requiring “the Republic of Senegal to prosecute and ensure that Hissène Habré is tried, on behalf of Africa, by a competent Senegalese court with guarantees for fair trial.”
  • Piling on, the Committee Against Torture announces that Senegal is in violation of its Convention Against Torture obligation to prosecute or extradite Habré.
  • Senegal enacts new international crimes legislation with extraterritorial jurisdiction, then tells the international community that it can’t possibly run a decent war crimes trial without $36.5 million… and some new shoes… and one of those spiffy new Droids with the extra-long battery life. Extensive budgetary wrangling ensues.
  • As the aforementioned haggling drags on into year three, Belgium decides to introduce a new wrinkle, and up and files a surprise suit at the International Court Justice, demanding that Senegal honor its CAT obligations by trying or extraditing Habré. (I was at the ICJ at the time, it was all very unexpected.)
  • Meanwhile, in 2008, Chad tries Habré in absentia and sentences him to death. Senegal begins to think there may be an easy out to this whole situation…
  • Also in 2008, Habré’s lawyers remember reading something somewhere about non-retroactivity, and file suit with ECOWAS alleging that it is a violation of Habré’s human rights to be tried under a criminal statute that did not exist at the time of his alleged crimes.
  • In 2010, ECOWAS issues its decision, and sorta kinda maybe buys Habré’s argument. It decides that while it would violate Habré’s rights to be tried under the newly-enacted Senegalese law, he can still be tried under international law, but it’ll have to be by an internationalized court. (This is pretty much nutballs. Eichmann, anyone?)
  • The AU proposes that a nifty hybrid court be established within the Senegalese judicial system to try Habré. Senegal, realizing that this whole thing is turning out to be a total drag, chooses this moment to throw an epic temper tantrum, withdraws from the negotiations, and announces that Habré will be shipped home to Chad to be executed.
  • Everyone freaks the f*** out, eventually convincing Senegal that sending Habré to the executioner is not the brilliant solution everyone’s been searching for. But Senegal continues to drag its feet as the AU pushes for prosecution and Belgium issues approximately 347 more extradition requests.
  • In July of 2012, the ICJ hands down its decision, finding in Belgium’s favor, and ordering Senegal to get on with it already. Meanwhile, President Abdoulaye Wade is defeated at the ballot box by challenger Macky Sall, and suddenly, Senegal gets all cooperative.
  • The “Extraordinary African Chambers” is born on February 8, 2013. On July 2, 2013, Habré is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture. His trial is expected to begin in early 2015.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of this saga. (And if you want the longer version of the events to date, check out Human Rights Watch’s extremely comprehensive chronology and Q&A.)

Kate Cronin-Furman

One Comment

  1. Great summary! See also MOBY DICK (where Captain Reed “Ahab” Brody engages in relentless pursuit of his great “white” Chadian whale).

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