Chadian Judgment against Habré: What Implications for the Search for Justice?

Published: 1 Oct 2008

Volume 4, Issue 6

On 15 August, the International Herald Tribune reported that former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré had been sentenced to death alongside dozens of others accused of engagement with the eastern rebellion in the country. The verdict against Habré was based, according to Chadian Minister of Justice Jean Bawoyeu Alingue, on his “financial, material and moral support to the rebels.”

The Chadian verdict came in the midst of a multi-year effort to bring Habré to justice in exile. Habré fled from Chad in 1990 after an eight year reign which claimed the lives of more than 40,000 political opponents, activists and members of disfavoured ethnic groups, according to a Commission of Inquiry set up by the Chadian government to assess Habré’s impact. The Commission also estimated that Habré managed to escape to Senegal with 11.6 million dollars in government assets.

The Case Against Habré Abroad

Since 1999, a committed group of activists in Chad, Senegal and throughout the world have worked tirelessly to ensure that Habré faces justice. Initial charges were lodged in the Senegalese courts in 2000, but when proceedings were suspended on the grounds that Senegal had no jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by a foreigner in another country, the coalition began to seek alternative venues. Belgium, with its legal provisions for prosecuting human rights abusers under the principle of universal jurisdiction, was a logical choice. In 2005, the Belgian authorities issued an arrest warrant against Habré. Stymied by the extradition proceedings initiated by this warrant, the Senegalese authorities referred the case to the African Union, which mandated Senegal to try Habré “in the name of Africa.”

The Reaction from the Parties

The Chadian move appeared to take both the Senegalese authorities and the advocacy community by surprise. In comments given to the press, Senegalese Minister of Justice Madicke Niang said that the ruling came as a surprise to him. He went on, however, to say that the prosecution could undermine proceedings against Habré in Senegal. According to Niang, Habré could not be tried in Senegal if he had already been prosecuted in Chad on the same evidence. The Minister also reportedly commented that in the case of a conflict, the proceedings in Chad would take precedence as the victims had been based in Chad.

These comments were, perhaps, welcomed by Habré’s defence team, which responded to the announcement saying that the case was “manipulation” and that they were “not taking this seriously.” Perhaps emboldened by the reticence of the Senegalese minister (who was formerly part of Habré’s defence team), the defence took the opportunity of convening a press conference on August 22 challenging the Senegalese proceedings. They argued that Habré had been unfairly singled out for prosecution among numerous actors in a bloody conflict. According to French defence lawyer Francois Serres, “only trying Habré will not lead to a fair trial. This war at first pitted Chadians against Chadians (…) to develop into an internationally armed conflict in which Chad led by Habré fought against a foreign country: Qadhafi’s Libya.” He then questioned the wisdom of trying Habré and these other parties — including current Chadian President Idriss Deby and Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi.

Senegalese Civil Society Responds

Civil society organizations, however, while equally surprised, were extremely critical of the move according to Khady Ndiaye, Executive Director of the Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme (RADDHO) in Senegal.

First, RADDHO and their partners l’Organisation Nationale Sénégalaise des Droits de l’Homme (ONDH) noted that they “totally disapproved” of the ruling. The ruling was contrary to human rights standards, it was argued, both because the death penalty violated the right to life and also because the proceedings failed to respect basic fair trial standards, most notably the right to a defence (no defence was permitted during the three day proceedings). According to RADDHO President Alioune Tine, “We are fundamentally opposed to the death sentence and we have always been against a trial for Habré in Chad due to the weakness of the judicial system and the fact that it is often used for political means.” Indeed, in the words of Ndiaye, Deby was attempting to act both as a judge of, and party to, the armed conflict.

Second, differing from the position of Minister Niang, RADDHO argued that the timing of the proceedings was “inopportune” given the fact that Senegal had already moved to prosecute Habré, having been mandated by the African Union. They also pointed out that Senegal had made significant strides in moving the process forward, passing a constitutional amendment affirming that the Senegalese authorities have jurisdiction to try crimes against humanity and assigning three judges and two prosecutors to work on the case. Rather than superseding Senegal’s jurisdiction, the organisation argued, the case in Chad needlessly undermined it. The spokesperson, Khady Ndiaye, summed up the organisation’s position by saying that they “want to move forward,” and that the proceedings in Chad have “nothing to do with us.”

This position is supported by the fact that the Chadian charges are quite separate from those filed in Senegal. While the charges considered in Chad had to do with engagement in the current rebellion, the charges filed in Senegal relate to torture and other human rights abuses committed against Chadians during the time that Habré was in power. Therefore, despite the speculation of Justice Minister Niang, it seems that there should be no legal obstacle to continuing with proceedings in Senegal.

The Chadian trial may, however, insert a new layer of political opposition. Some have speculated that the move was an effort on the part of the Chadian authorities to stall the trial. These analysts argue that the Deby regime, which includes a number of individuals who held high posts under the Habré regime, wishes to avoid seeing the full extent of human rights violations under Habré from coming to light.

Others, such as Human Rights Watch’s Reed Brody, say that the Senegalese minister’s comments reflect a lack of political will to carry the trial forward. In an interview with Voice of America, Brody noted that it was “no secret that Hissene Habré has used the millions of dollars that he stole from the Chadian treasury to build himself a network of protection and support in Senegal… There are people in Senegal that have always opposed bringing Habré to justice.”

Assane Dioma Ndiaye of the ONDH similarly criticised the “delay” in the development of the case. RADDHO urged the government to move forward with the case quickly, noting that the mandate from the African Union gave the government of Senegal a unique opportunity to be the first African country to judge a former African head of state. In a global context where “African leaders are transferred to the International Criminal Court as a result of the lack of African jurisdictions,” this opportunity should not be wasted.

Regions: North and Horn of Africa
Type: Library, Refugee Rights News