Hissène Habré convicted

habre

On 27 April 2017, the Court of Appeals of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), based in Dakar, confirmed the conviction of Hissène Habré to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture crimes. On 30 May 2016, he had been convicted in first instance to the same sentence and he had appealed. The conviction is therefore final.

It is no exaggeration to say that this trial is historical. For the first time, a former African Head of State has been convicted by an African jurisdiction, in a different country of where the crimes were committed.

It is a remarkable application of the principle of international law of universal jurisdiction, under which the alleged author of particularly grave crimes can be tried anywhere, regardless of his nationality or the victim’s. The EAC were created by an agreement between Senegal, where Habré lived, and the African Union. The tribunal is comprised of judges of several African nationalities.

This conviction puts an end to 17 years of fighting ; a fight carried out by the victims supported by a groups of NGOs gathered under the “International Committee for the Fair Judgment of Hissène Habré”. Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme was a member of that committee alongside other 7 associations.

Bloody dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990, Habré, ousted by Idriss Déby, current president, had fled to Senegal, without forgetting to steal all the state’s money. In Dakar, he lived peacefully, hiding as a devout Muslim and forming a new family.

In July 2000, we assisted a group of victims who lodged a complaint at the Justice Palace in Dakar. We had no idea it would be the beginning of a 17 years long struggle with countless up and downs, that we would have to bring the matter to the Belgian justice who recognised the universal jurisdiction and that, after a rigorous investigation, requested, in vain, the extradition of Habré, then the International Court of Justice and then the African Union. The file was nonetheless solid, the evidence strong as well as the testimonies.

As of 1992, I meet with Mr. Mahamat Hassan Abakar, then magistrate and President of the Investigation Commission, in his office in N’Djamana. He shared his astonishment before the amplitude of the crimes and estimated at 40 000 the number of victims. Souleyman Guengueng, a survivor tortured during his detention, had just created an association for the victims of the Hissène Habré regime.

Now that justice was finally rendered, we must pay tribute to these 2 men without whom Habré would have remained unpunished. The commitment of the victims and their perseverance has been a determinant factor in this success. To this tribute, it is fair to associate mostly the American Reed Brody, spokesperson of Human Rights Watch, who remained commitment to the victims to concentrate all his efforts to this cause. Indeed, throughout the years, he visited Chad 26 times. And let us not forget the Chadian Jacqueline Moudeina, in charge of the collective of lawyers for the civil parties.

This trial was fair – that was what we wanted. Habré had all the possibilities for defence, appeal the first instance judgment and present witnesses. The financial means gathered often from several African states and from other sources, enabled us to cover the costs of the trial of a trial so immense that Senegal on its own would not have been able to afford it. This also allowed to cover for the travelling expenses (Dakar is 2485 miles from N’Djamena) and accommodation for 92 witnesses, for the most part, but not only, survivors from Chad.

The final conviction of the African Pinochet is likely going to give hope to all the victims of torturer and assassin dictators around the world. It will be remembered in History as the day when a group of survivors finally won the battle. It is a turning point for Africa but not only : all dictators now know that they cannot, wherever they go and no matter how much time has passed since the crimes, evade justice.

Habré, 74 years old, will spend the rest of his days in prison and Souleyman Guengueng can say « I am finally in peace », as he walks out of the last hearing, expressing the feeling of all the survivors and families of the disappeared : « I am finally in peace ».

André Barthélémy

 

 

 

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