“The president is not an untouchable god”: Chad’s Hissène Habré sentenced to life
Whether or not the template can be replicated, the symbolism of Chadian lawyers representing Chadian victims on African soil in this historic case will live on
The cries of joy in the Dakar courtroom yesterday said it all. The fact that the victims of Hissène Habré’s regime and their supporters waited patiently until the presiding judge Gustave Gberdao Kam closed the session and dissolved the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) before erupting into ululations and euphoria was perhaps testimony to the respect everyone has shown for this court over the last ten months.
Jacqueline Moudeina and Delphine Djiraibe, two formidable Chadian lawyers who have worked together on this case for nearly twenty years, clung to each other in relief. Even I, a bit part observer in this incredible story, had a lump in my throat as I watched Souleymane Guengueng and Clement Abaifouta – two men at the heart of the civil society case against Habré – shaking hands and embracing, the story finally over.
In the other corner sat Habré, cloaked from head to foot in a pressed gleaming white djelleba and turban, sunglasses perched on his nose. As with every single day that this court has been in session, he sat rigid in his leather armchair like a waxwork as the verdict was delivered, not the vaguest flicker of a reaction on his face. The list of charges was long: guilty on the basis of superieure hierarchique (that he was responsible for acts committed by his subordinates) on charges of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes; guilty on forced slavery, executions and rape. The full verdict took an hour and a half to deliver.
Perhaps he was lost in thought, questioning his early decision to remain silent throughout the trial, even refusing to co-operate with the court-appointed defence team in a move which will presumably lessen the chances of an appeal against the conviction being launched. If he thought his antics at the dramatic opening to the trial in July last year – when he was carried into the court against his will on the shoulders of burly Senegalese security agents, cantankerously denouncing the “imperialist plot” – would cause the trial to collapse and the EAC to become discredited, it seems he under-estimated the determination of Judge Kam.
Indeed it now seems hard to imagine any other outcome than Habré dying in prison.
A template for the future?
The Hissene Habré story has been remarkable from start to finish. This trial was the culmination of 25 years of tireless campaigning by civil society activists, many of them former inmates of Habré’s network of secret prisons which were run by the dreaded DDS (Directorate for Documentation and Security). We may never know the exact number of people that died as a result of neglect and torture in those prisons, as well as attacks on ethnic groups who opposed his rule and massacres in villages. But we do now know thanks to witness testimony, of the appalling brutality of Chadian security agents during Habré’s rule from 1982 to 1990.
The trial shed light on cases of arbatachar where prisoners were bound hand and foot behind their backs with car exhaust pipes shoved in the mouths, of prisoners dying from lack of medical treatment, of brutal beatings, of bayonets being inserted into vaginas, and of burning villages. Perhaps most dramatically, one woman Khadija Hassan Zidane stood metres from Habré in the courtroom and accused him of having personally raped her on four occasions.
The question of whether this so-called “hybrid court” model could be replicated for use in future human rights abuse cases is now on many people’s lips. Some have even speculated that the success of this trial – completing its hearings within a year without interminable requests for further funding – could influence the future of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has struggled in its attempts to prosecute sitting African heads of state, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya.
The EAC was created by the African Union within the existing Senegalese justice system and it was the first time the courts of one African nation were used to try the former president of another nation, using the legal principle of universal jurisdiction which allows countries to try people for crimes not committed on their territory. The need for a “special court” arose from the difficulties of prosecuting Habré in Senegal, to which he had fled after being toppled in a coup in 1990. For more than 20 years, Senegal’s former president Abdoulaye Wade had refused to co-operate despite charges being laid against Habré in Dakar in 2000. The breakthrough in this case came in 2012 when Macky Sall was elected as the new president of Senegal and vowed early on to put Habré on trial.
It is difficult to imagine a set of circumstances which would allow this exact model to be replicated – Habré was an extremely isolated figure and without the determination of Sall he may well have still been living in the genteel Dakar suburb of Ouakam. Furthermore, his victims were organised, educated and benefited from the support of the large international campaign group Human Rights Watch and the extremely dedicated Reed Brody who fought for 16 years for justice.
And so, in the end, I believe it will be the symbolism of this trial which will have the greatest impact on future African justice. Here we saw Chadian lawyers representing Chadian victims on African soil. The entire case was filmed and streamed live, and significant efforts were made to educate ordinary Chadians about the case and its importance. This focus on victims has been crucial. As Souleymane Guengueng, the former Habré victim who fought to the end for justice, put it: “I think that has really opened the minds of people in Chad – that the president is not an untouchable god. He is equal to other Chadians. You will answer for your crimes”.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist with a focus on Africa and the Sahel. She is the author of Africa’s New Oil. Follow her on Twitter at @chadceleste.