After a two-decade campaign for justice by the victims, the trial in Senegal of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré is set to begin July 20, 2015. Habré will stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes before the Extraordinary African Chambers (the chambers) in the Senegal court system.
Habré seized power in 1982, in a CIA-backed coup, and ruled with an iron fist until his overthrow in 1990. In December 1990, the CIA and state department’s Africa bureau loaded C-141 cargo planes with weapons and proceeded to save the dictator in return for his eight-year collaboration with Ronald Reagan’s covert effort to destabilize Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Since 1990, he lived with impunity in Dakar for 22 years.
Habré’s regime has been described as oppressive, cruel and inhuman. Souleymane Guengueng, a former bookkeeper recounts how he was held on insignificant political charges for nearly three years. First, he was held in solitary confinement, then packed so tightly with other prisoners they could not even lay down to sleep. Being kept alternately in total darkness or blazing electric light, 24-hours-a-day for months on end, left him nearly blind. He was hung from his testicles after being caught leading prayers for other prisoners. While in captivity he suffered from malaria, pulmonary edema and hepatitis, losing the ability to walk for months. What he suffered exemplified Habré’s regime.
Guengueng survived until he was freed with thousands of other prisoners in December 1990, when a new set of rebels, led by Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, ousted Habré. Habré escaped to Senegal, with some $12m he had pilfered from national bank accounts, enough for him to live comfortably and buy him political supporters in Senegal to protect him for years.
After his release, Guengueng spent months quietly collecting testimonies of other prison survivors and eventually gathered over 700 testimonies. Eventually, an American Human Rights lawyer, Reed Brody, took an interest in the case, turning those testimonies, years later, into the core of a groundbreaking legal effort by Chadian victims and Chadian and international attorneys to hold Habré accountable for his crimes. Traveling with Guengueng and other Chadian victims, Brody and his team filed the first criminal complaint against Habré in Dakar in January 2000.
Habré’s trial will be the first in the world in which the courts of one country, based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. The term “universal jurisdiction” refers to the idea that a national court may prosecute individuals for any serious crime against international law — such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture — based on the principle that such crimes harm the international, which individual States may act to protect. Generally, universal jurisdiction is invoked when other, traditional bases of criminal jurisdiction do not exist, for example: the defendant is not a national of the State or the defendant did not commit a crime in that State’s territory or against its nationals.
The first precedent for Universal Jurisdiction was seen in the case of General Augusto Pinochet. He was indicted for human rights violations committed in his native Chile by Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón on 10 October 1998. He was arrested in London six days later and held for a year and a half before finally being released by the British government in March 2000. The judiciary committee of the British House of Lords (the United Kingdom’s supreme court) concluded that “international law has made it plain that certain types of conduct . . . are not acceptable conduct on the part of anyone.” Pinochet was eventually authorized to return to Chile to face charges for a number of crimes. The interpretation of international law in Ex parte Pinochet grants any magistrate anywhere in the world the power to demand extradition of a person accused of crimes against international law.
The ideal behind the concept of Universal Jurisdiction for international crimes is that it would permit governments to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against humanity wherever they were found. Mass killers who had fallen from power could be punished regardless of where they were found. In cases where the government of the country where the atrocities took place might be too weak or compromised to prosecute, some government without a history of complicity in the crimes could reach out and punish an international criminal. The thought is that the prospect of being prosecuted anywhere might motivate some rulers to put a stop to massive crimes.
Detractors of Universal Jurisdiction state that it becomes an impediment to national reconciliation procedures set up by new democratic governments to deal with their countries’ questionable pasts. Additionally, they claim that once the Pandora’s box of jurisdiction has been opened, the political pressures on international prosecutions are difficult to control. A good example is Belgium, which, until recently, had a statute providing for jurisdiction over international crimes, whether there was any connection to Belgium or not. Its courts became a haven for political claims against national leaders, claims that had no chance in the country where the events took place. Complainants sought to prosecute Ariel Sharon for abuses in Lebanon, and former president George H.W. Bush for a bombing in Baghdad during the first Gulf War. U.S. The law was eventually amended when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, threatened to withdraw NATO headquarters from Brussels, Belgian parliament weakened the jurisdiction to the point where it is available only if the victim or the accused is Belgian.
In the case of Hissène Habré, President Obama has publicly praised Senegal’s establishment of the Extraordinary African Chambers to try the worst crimes of Habré’s government. Obama said the United States would provide resources to support the work of the tribunal. Reed Brody, counsel for the victims has stated that “[i]f Hissène Habré’s trial is conducted in a fair and transparent manner it could mark a turning point for justice in Africa.”
After 22 years seeking justice, a trial in this case is also turning point for the victims and perhaps a step in the right direction in the development of justice for international crimes.