December 1990 saw the overthrow of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré by his chief of staff, the current president of Chad, Idriss Déby Itno.
Habré fled to Senegal in the presidential plane with $28-million worth of Chadian public money. He spent eight blood-soaked years in power, marked by 40 000 summary executions and forced disappearances. Almost 200 000 people suffered torture at the hands of the dreaded secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité – DDS).
Twenty-five years later, the aging dictator will be held to account by his victims before an independent court, the Extraordinary African Chambers, set up in Senegal with the support of the African Union.
The court was established in February 2013 following two decades of impunity for Habré. For the first time in history, one African state will put a dictator from another African state on trial in Africa. This is a historic step for Africa and for African judicial independence.
The extraordinary legal and human saga began in 1999, when the first victims of Habré’s regime came to see us. One man in particular, Souleymane Guengueng, had buried hundreds of files in his garden, which detailed men and women tortured and killed by the dreadful DDS agents in the regime’s secret prisons. These remarkable archives revealed the secrets of a paranoid, ultra-hierarchical and bloody regime, which eliminated thousands of individuals, regardless of religion, ethnicity or age, solely to maintain its power.
Having sought justice in Chad, Belgium and Senegal, the victims, with the support of our organisations, staked their hopes on Senegal, a country which had sheltered Hissène Habré for 20 years, being democratically mature enough to allow for his trial. The African Union also played a considerable part, demanding in 2006 that Senegal put Habré on trial “in the name of Africa”. In June 2013, the new Senegalese president Macky Sall gave the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) his word that he would do so and, more importantly, kept that promise.
The referral on February 13 2015 of Habré to the Assize Chamber of the Extraordinary African Chambers for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture was the culmination of 19 months of judicial investigation and opened the way to a fair trial which is due to take place in the presence of the victims and their defence lawyers beginning on July 20 2015.
Desire for justice
This trial is important not only because it seeks to bring Habré to justice, but it also has immense symbolic importance for Africa as a whole. The trial is in a way a response to the desire for justice on the continent. To Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea, not to mention the countries where Boko Haram is wreaking havoc, the message is clear: crimes will not go unpunished and, even if it takes 20 years, Africa will not forget its victims. It is no longer a question of foreign interference or post-colonial justice, evoked when trials of autocrats take place in Europe or before international courts. The trials of dictators, warlords and mass criminals will now also take place in Africa.
However, by organising this trial, Senegal is, in effect, simply fulfilling its international obligations regarding the United Nations Convention against Torture, which includes a clause requiring signatories to put those who commit crimes of torture and are present on their territory on trial, even if the individual involved or their victim is not a national of that country and the crime was committed abroad. This principle of “universal jurisdiction”, or more accurately extra-territorial jurisdiction, was accepted by 42 of the 45 African states, when they signed the United Nations Convention against Torture. Senegal is simply the first African state to implement it and to open the way to it being applied in practice.
Our organisations and Legal Action Group have, moreover, submitted a further complaint under “universal jurisdiction” to the Senegalese judicial authorities, concerning a Congolese police officer involved in the assassination in Kinshasa of two human rights workers, Floribert Chebeya and Fidèle Bazana, in 2010. They were killed on the orders of the chief of police at the time. This complaint is currently being examined by the Senegalese criminal justice system.
While Senegal is leading the way, other countries wish to put justice and the fight against impunity for the most serious crimes at the centre of their policymaking. Thus, on March 1 2015, the National Assembly of the Central African Republic was called upon to create a Special Criminal Court, similar to the Extraordinary African Chambers, composed of Central African magistrates and magistrates from other African countries, responsible for judging the warlords who have ravaged the country for the past two years.
Perhaps 2015 will be the year of major victories over impunity in Africa.
Perhaps the trial of Habré in Senegal will be followed by that of two former presidents who seized power via a coup d’état, Aya Sanogo in Mali and Dadis Camara in Guinea. Perhaps we will even see the trials of those responsible for the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Even if not all these trials take place this year, 2015 will undoubtedly remain a key date in the history of judicial independence in Africa.
- Florent Geel is the head of FIDH Africa Bureau; Assane Dioma Ndiaye is the president of the Senegal League of Human Rights (Ligue sénégalaise des droits humains – LSDH) and Dobian Assingar is the honorary president of the Chad League of Human Rights (Ligue tchadienne des droits de l’Homme – LTDH). Senegalese lawyer “C”, representing the victims, also contributed to this article.