From the archives: Hissène Habré
This week the appeal of former Chadian president Hissène Habré started before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Dakar. Habré was convicted in May last year of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture and sentenced to life in prison. The appeal has been mainly legal challenges from the defence and questions about the courts decisions on reparations. The sessions are being broadcast live but in the court in Dakar the public gallery has been largely empty and Habré himself has not attended the hearings.
From the IJT archives here's Thierry Cruvellier's 2016 story about how the Habré case can be a model as an alternative to international tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Habré: the benefits and fragile hope sof a new model
If there was any surprise in the judgment of former president of Chad Hissène Habré, it was that there wasn’t a single surprise. On May 30, 2016, Habré was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture for which he received a life sentence. Apart from a minor charge relating to the transfer of prisoners of war, every accusation against him was upheld by the trial chamber of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), an inter-African court created to try him, based in Dakar, Senegal [IJT-184].
Reading a summary of a judgment, presiding judge Gberdao Gustave Kam said that Habré “had control over most of the security apparatus” as well the army during his eight-year rule over Chad, from June 1982 to December 1990, when he had “created and maintained a climate of total impunity”. During this entire period, the court said, large-scale waves of repression followed the same pattern and the same objective: to repress anyone who may wish to oppose him. Habré and his security organs “created a system where impunity and terror were the law”. Not only did he authorize the establishment of a network of prisons, he also personally ordered the murder of at least two men, and participated in the interrogation of prisoners, including sometimes their torture, said the court. His contribution was “essential and decisive”. Habré had “consolidated all power” in his hands. He was the “chief organizer at the central level”, the court said.
Some of the most debated evidence against Habré concerned two mass murders of prisoners of war that took place in 1983 and in 1987, each of which had only one direct witness. The court found that the accused knew or had reasons to know that these mass executions would occur. He also knew that “the natural and foreseeable consequence” of the criminal enterprise he was part of would lead to sexual crimes, including the sexual enslavement of women in two army camps of Kalait and Ouadi Doum, judges ruled.
Finally, the court found the testimony of Khadija Hassan Zidane, a woman who testified having been raped four times by the accused himself, in the premises of the presidential palace in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, to be credible and consistent .
Hissène Habré’s actions, read Judge Kam, led to “thousands of victims, many of whom still suffer of the consequences thirty years later”. His crimes have left “indelible marks on many families in Chad”. His personal involvement, his contempt for a tribunal he refused to cooperate with, and his defiant behavior in court were held against him as aggravating circumstances that justified a life sentence.
At the end of the hearing, victims and human rights activists expressed their satisfaction loudly, hugging each other during long minutes inside the courtroom. This trial was the direct result of the legal action they had taken, starting sixteen years ago. Never before, at the international level, had victims voices been so dominant, in particular after Habré decided to keep silent and refused to defend himself.
An alternative model for international tribunals?
The EAC were often presented as an alternative to international tribunals such as those for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, or the International Criminal Court (ICC). Indeed, in terms of cost and efficiency, the EAC has a lot to show to its sister courts in The Hague or Arusha. The Habré trial opened in July 2015 and was completed in about ten months. Evidence hearings took only three months, from September to December. With a budget of 8.5 million euros (9.5 million dollars), it is by far the most effective among contemporary war crimes trials, costing three to four times less than a trial at the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and about twelve times less than a case before the ICC.
It will provide a strong argument to those supporting domestic jurisdictions over international models, as well as those arguing that civil law is better adapted to such cases than common law procedure. It is unlikely, however, to shake the limits of symbolic, politically influenced trials as performed by all other international courts. Thirty-five percent of the EAC budget was funded by Chad, whose president Idriss Déby overthrew Habré in 1990. Déby had been Habré's army chief, notably during the infamous wave of repression in the southern part of the country, in 1984. The EAC has proved incapable to try other top officials in Habré’s security services, let alone investigate Déby’s own responsibilities. Neither did the court look into the heavy responsibilities of foreign governments, including France, the United States and Libya.
The creation of the EAC was also endorsed by the African Union and often hailed as a sign that Africa was taking responsibility for crimes committed by its leaders. In January, however, several members of the AU indicated their unwillingness to repeat such operation. The Habré trial may well stand as an exception rather than a precedent.
Next step reparations?
An equally important next step now awaits the EAC. Before July 30, the court should rule on reparations accorded to victims. There are great expectations for this court to set a better example than all other international tribunals in this field. Will victims be compensated and how? Some of Habré’s assets were seized by the Senegalese judiciary after his arrest in 2013. According to judicial sources the value of these assets is about one million euros. This would make individual compensation difficult. Will the court then hold the state of Chad responsible for reparations? Most observers find that very unlikely, most actors in the case, in fact appear to be in the dark about many issues related to reparations.
All parties were called for a preliminary meeting with the Trial Chamber on May 31 to agree on the agenda in the coming two months. This is one more chance for the EAC to stand as a different model on how to prosecute state crimes.
[Note: this story was intiallly published May 31, 2016 ]
Thierry Cruvellier, former editor of the IJT, has been following international war crimes and crimes against humanity tribunals for the past 17 years.
He is the author of books on the Rwanda tribunal (ICTR) and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal (ECCC).