Victims bring a dictator to justice

15 June 2016 by Reed Brody (Op-ed contributor)

A special court in Senegal convicted Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, for atrocity crimes on May 30, and sentenced him to life in prison[IJT-192]. It was the first time  that the courts of one country had prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. It was also the first time in a human rights trial that a former ruler was found to have personally committed rape.

Most important for the future, however, the verdict was the result of a 25-year campaign by Habré’s victims and their supporters. They improbably succeeded in creating the political conditions to bring Habré to justice in Africa, with the support of the African Union.


Demonstration of widows of victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré in the Chadian capital N'Djamena in 2005 (Photo: Human Rights Watch)
Image caption: 
Demonstration of widows of victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré in the Chadian capital N'Djamena in 2005 (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

The role of the survivors as protagonists permeated the case from inception to verdict. This made the campaign diplomatically powerful and politically appealing, and the result satisfying for the victims’ groups and Chadians in general. The model they created is potentially accessible to other victims seeking justice.

The case took shape in the mind of Souleymane Guengueng, a modest civil servant who watched dozens of his cell mates succumb to torture and disease in Habré’s prisons, and promised that if he ever got out of jail alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. When Habré was overthrown in 1990 and fled to Senegal, Guengueng used his charm to persuade still-frightened victims to join him. 

Nine years later, inspired by the London arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the victims linked up with Human Rights Watch. We helped them file the first case in Senegal in 2000, and then face every hurdle in what the Toronto Globe and Mail would call “one of the world’s most patient and tenacious campaigns for justice”.

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