Context: Other Africa
Hissène Habré is a former leader of the African country of Chad, which he ruled from 1982 until deposed in 1990. He was born during the French colonial occupation in 1942 in Faya-Largeau, northern Chad. Excelling at school, his talent was detected by a French military commander, who organized a scholarship for him to study in France, where he studied at the Institute of Overseas Higher Studies, Paris, completing a degree in political science (eventually earning a doctorate). He returned to Chad in 1971. Joining the civil service, he was sent on a mission to persuade two rebel chiefs to lay down their arms but instead went to Libya and joined their struggle. In Tripoli he joined the Forces Armées du Nord (Armed Forces of the North, or FAN). FAN operated in the extreme north of Chad, among the Toubou ethnic group (to which Habré’s own Anakaza people were related), and was led by Goukouni Oueddei (b. 1944). Habré later split with Oueddei but kept the name of FAN for his breakaway rebel army.
On August 29, 1978, Habré became prime minister under President Félix Malloum (1932–2009). One year later Malloum’s government ended when elections brought Oueddei to the presidency, but on June 7, 1982, Habré seized power in a coup that was widely believed to have been backed by the CIA, France, and Sudan, as a bulwark against Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (1942–2011). Habré became president and abolished the position of prime minister.
He thereupon ruled Chad with an iron fist. He instituted a dictatorial one-party state, in which his dreaded political police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), committed serial abuses against dissenters and ethnic minorities, who were routinely tortured and executed. Although an accurate figure of those tortured cannot be determined, most estimates settle on around 200,000 cases of torture in the eight years Habré was in power. Other human rights abuses included ethnic cleansing–style massacres against local Chadian minorities such as the Sara (1984) and Hadjerai (1987) peoples, and the Zaghawa people (who also inhabit the Darfur region of western Sudan) in 1989. Habré was known for periodically ordering the wholesale arrest and mass murder of members of these groups to deter possible threats to his rule.
His regime was thus characterized by widespread violence and atrocities. It is estimated that 40,000 Chadians lost their lives under Habré’s rule. Human Rights Watch later dubbed Habré “Africa’s Pinochet,” a reference to the regime in Chile similarly predicated on torture, murder, and other violence under military dictator Augusto Pinochet (1915–2006).
Throughout this time, Habré’s Chad was also fighting a war with Libya, after that country invaded in July 1980. The war was fought over the disputed Aozou Strip, a patch of territory in northern Chad along the border with Libya, extending south to a depth of about 62 miles and covering an area of 44,000 square miles. On December 15, 1980, Libya occupied all of northern Chad, but by November 1981, with help from the United States and France, Habré had driven the Libyans out. In 1983, Libyan troops occupied all of the country north of Koro Toro, but again with U.S. and French assistance Habré was able to reoccupy the territory by 1987. The war ended in 1988.
As Habré was fighting the war, he continued the oppression of his ethnic minorities, in particular the Zaghawa, whom he saw as a subversive internal enemy. In November 1990, a Zaghawa rebel group, led by General Idriss Déby (b. 1952), launched an offensive against Habré. By December 2, 1990, Déby had defeated Habré’s forces, and Déby installed himself as president. As the rebels entered Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, Habré fled to Cameroon prior to a more permanent exile in Senegal, where he attempted to maintain a low profile. He became involved with the local Tijaniyya Islamic sect and fathered four of his children there.
In 1992, a commission of inquiry of the Chadian Justice Ministry was set up by Idriss Déby. It recommended that legal action should be taken against Habré and the perpetrators of the atrocities occurring under his rule between 1982 and 1990. While the government would subsequently not proceed with action against those of his accomplices who still remained in Chad, the situation regarding Habré became a cause célèbre. The problem, for several years, was that the Senegalese judicial authorities did not have jurisdiction over Habré and that Chad never sought his extradition. It took until January 2000 for the case to be tested in a Senegalese court, when seven citizens from the republic of Chad walked into a court in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and charged their former president with torture. Habré was indicted, but the courts ruled that he could not be tried in Senegal itself.
In April 2001, Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade (b. 1926), gave Habré one month to leave Senegal. This raised the possibility that Habré could use the time to seek refuge in a third country that would arrange immunity, placing him out of the reach of justice. Following a direct appeal by UN secretary general Kofi Annan (b. 1938), in which Senegal was asked to prevent Habré’s departure, Wade stated in September 2001 that he had agreed to hold Habré until such time as a country like Belgium, presumably capable of organizing a fair trial, requested his extradition.
Even before the decision of the Senegalese Court of Final Appeal, however, others had filed a complaint in Belgium against Hissène Habré. This came from 21 victims, three of whom had obtained Belgian nationality after several years of residence there. The complaints were lodged through the application of Belgium’s so-called Universal Jurisdiction Act, which allowed the opening of criminal proceedings against those responsible for the worst kind of violations of human rights regardless of where the violations had taken place, the nationality of those responsible, or that of their victims. This created the conditions for Habré’s possible extradition to Belgium for trial. A Senegalese court, however, refused to extradite him.
In August 2003, as a result of strong pressure from the United States, the Belgian parliament repealed the Universal Jurisdiction Act, but the change did not have any effect on the Habré case, since preliminary investigations were at that time already underway and Belgian victims were among those who had filed the complaint. After a four-year investigation, a Belgian judge in September 2005 issued an international arrest warrant charging Habré with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture committed during his time as president of Chad. Pursuant to a Belgian extradition request, Senegalese authorities detained Habré on November 16, 2005. At the extradition hearing on November 25, 2005, the Appeals Court in Dakar declared itself “not competent” to rule on Belgium’s request for extradition, its reasoning based on Habré’s immunity as a former head of state. The court asked the African Union (AU) to recommend “the competent jurisdiction” for Habré’s trial.
On January 24, 2006, the AU decided against the extradition of Habré to Belgium. President Wade announced that African leaders wanted to refer Habré to a panel of legal experts who would back the use of an African rather than a Belgian court for a trial. In May 2006, Senegal was criticized by the United Nations Committee against Torture for dragging its heels, requesting that Habré be either prosecuted or extradited to Belgium (or any other state willing to prosecute him). By way of response, on July 2, 2006, an AU committee recommended that Habré be tried in Senegal, Chad, or another African nation that had adopted the international Convention against Torture, rather than in Belgium. Its preference was that this should be Senegal, which was asked to prosecute Habré “in the name of Africa.” President Wade now agreed to do so.
This was a highly significant step, as for the first time the organized African States were shown to be taking human rights issues into their own hands. The trial, when (and if) it began, would be the first occasion a former head of state stood trial for human rights abuses having been extradited at the request of a competent intergovernmental authority. As a direct consequence of this, on January 31, 2007, the Senegalese National Assembly amended the constitution to permit the prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, even when committed outside of Senegal, and regardless of when the acts occurred. On April 8, 2008, the National Assembly then voted to further amend the constitution to clear the way for Habré to be prosecuted in Senegal.
On August 15, 2008, a Chadian court sentenced Habré to death in absentia for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This effectively negated Chad’s jurisdiction over the Habré case so far as the United Nations was concerned, as the UN is a body that eschews the death penalty.
Fourteen of Habré’s victims filed new charges with a Senegalese prosecutor on September 16, 2008, accusing Habré of crimes against humanity and torture. In April 2009, the Senegalese authorities promised the International Court of Justice in The Hague that Habré would not be leaving Senegal, though at the same time a request came from Dakar for 27 million euros in funding from the international community before proceeding any further with the trial.
In November 2010, a court sitting for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled that Senegal could not try Habré in a local Senegalese court and that the matter would have to be adjudicated by a specially created international tribunal. In April 2011, the government of Senegal agreed to the creation of such a court. However, on May 30, 2011, Senegal changed its position once more, walking out during discussions on how the court should be established. No explanation was given. Moves then began through the African Union to investigate the prospect of extraditing Habré to Belgium for a possible trial there. On July 8, 2011, Senegalese officials announced that Habré would be extradited to Chad within days, but soon afterward it suspended even this proposed repatriation.
As of this writing, no trial has yet begun, though prosecutors are at work gathering evidence. In the meantime, Habré remains under nominal house arrest in Dakar.