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30 July 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 6:49am

A late start for the trial of African justice

An unruly start in the landmark trial of the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré in Dakar.

By Mishal Husain

Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, will be the first African leader tried for crimes against humanity by another African state. On 20 July, the 72-year-old was escorted from a spacious, air-conditioned prison in Dakar’s scenic Cap Manuel neighbourhood to the Palais de Justice – a stark contrast to the windowless cells in Chad where Habré is alleged to have held prisoners in the baking Sahel heat until they were summoned to be tortured or executed without trial.

Senegal is eager to do things right. The spotlight rests on one of the continent’s few stable democracies to see if Africa can deliver justice for Africans without calling on the Europe-based International Criminal Court (ICC). “We will try Habré in the name of humanity . . . which Hissène Habré never allowed his victims,” Jacqueline Moudeina, the victims’ lawyer, announced in her opening remarks to a packed courtroom.

The ailing septuagenarian is accused of presiding over a network of secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), responsible for the execution, forced disappearance, torture and arrest of his political opponents and ethnic rivals between 1982 and 1990. An investigation by the prosecuting judges of the Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE) uncovered evidence of at least 12,000 victims, with more than 1,200 deaths at the hands of the DDS. The Chadian authorities believe the number of victims could be as high as 40,000.

At the Palais de Justice, survivors waited patiently for his arrival. “Suffering is an open wound, a burning wound that even time cannot close,” said Souleymane Guengueng, the founder of the Habré victims’ association. “After 24 years of struggle, I want to look you in the eyes and ask why I rotted for over two years in prison; why my friends were tortured and killed.”

Success in Senegal, which was mandated by the African Union to try Habré, could help bring more justice on the continent. Attitudes to the ICC range from apathy in Cape Town to hostility in Harare. In June, South Africa, a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the ICC in 1998, permitted the Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir, to leave the country though he is wanted for alleged genocide and war crimes in Darfur.

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“The Habré tribunal, based on Senegal’s national law and supported by international participation, has set a precedent and you can see the impact it is having in South Sudan, where two rival leaders have agreed in principle for a hybrid court similar to the one that we see here in Dakar,” said Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues.

Habré fled Chad in 1990 after his former defence minister Idriss Déby seized power. He allegedly plundered the Chadian national coffers and sought exile in Senegal, where he used the money to win political and religious influence. In the 2000s, Abdoulaye Wade’s government protected Habré after the first calls to try him came from Senegal and Belgium (where some of the victims now live). Wade lost presidential elections in 2012 and Habré was arrested the following year.

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On the dusty streets outside the courthouse, many agreed that justice had to be delivered to the victims, and found it hard to understand why Europe and the US have gone to such efforts to try African despots when their own leaders are still at large after the illegal invasion of Iraq. They question whether this tribunal is a western project in all but name, given the level of non-African funding.

Dressed in a white boubou and turban, gripping prayer beads, Habré shouted: “Down with the imperialists! [This trial] is a farce by rotten Senegalese politicians. African traitors. Valet of America.” A scuffle broke out between gendarmes and his followers, who echoed him: “Traitors!” and “Vive Habré!” The former president was taken away, refusing to recognise the trial.

The following day, Habré arrived in court without his defence, forcing the CAE to appoint new lawyers and suspend the trial until 7 September. After two decades of waiting, hundreds of victims who were to be flown to Senegal to give testimony will now have to wait even longer to appeal for justice.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who spent almost two decades working to put Habré in court, says that the message that the tribunal sends matters as much as the process. The trial shows that with tenacity, courage and imagination, victims can bring a dictator to justice. It is also a warning for leaders elsewhere: it may take a while, maybe even decades, but you’re no longer safe if you commit atrocities.