For the court of one country to prosecute the ruler of another is unprecedented. But that is what happened two weeks ago in a historic first, when an ad hoc tribunal in Dakar, Senegal, sentenced Hissene Habré to life in prison after finding the former president of Chad guilty of international human rights crimes. The tribunal was established in Senegal with the help of the African Union and applied international criminal law, including the treaty against torture.
The verdict sends a powerful message to African dictators, putting them on notice that they might share Habré’s fate. It encourages human rights advocates seeking to bring to justice African leaders who have allegedly committed crimes against humanity. Until now, such indictments and prosecutions have taken place at the International Criminal Court or special tribunals in The Hague, Netherlands, far away from where the crimes took place. For example, the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was sentenced to 50 years for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone. Finally, the case also gives hope to victims of serious human rights abuses inflicted by their own governments.
Now 73, Habré — who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990 — is called the “African Pinochet” for his brutality and cruel suppression of anyone suspected to be a dissident. A truth commission created by his successor government reported that his administration had killed more than 40,000 people and tortured, detained, raped, summarily executed, or imprisoned hundreds of thousands.
Habré was first indicted in 2000 by a judge in Senegal, where he was living in luxury after his ouster, but the court found that the crimes charged had not been codified there and the case was thrown out. The survivors took the case to Belgium, invoking universal jurisdiction, under which national courts are authorized to try cases of the most serious crimes against humanity even though they had not been committed in that nation’s territory and even if they are committed by government leaders in other states.
Senegal refused to comply with repeated requests from Belgium to extradite Habré. After several legal twists, the International Court of Justice in The Hague called upon Senegal to either prosecute Habré or extradite him. More than 90 victims and witnesses testified, and there was ample evidence from the thousands of files found in the old police buildings that included lists of prisoners and deaths in detention. The dreaded secret police unit he created carried out some of the worst abuses against suspected political opponents. Habré was found guilty of crimes against humanity, summary executions, torture and rape.
It must be noted that Habré had come to power with U.S. support. Despite his dismal human rights record and brutal repression of dissidents, the U.S. continued to give Chad millions in military and economic aid. This was acknowledged by Secretary of State John Kerry, who welcomed the verdict, saying, “As a country committed to the respect for human rights and the pursuit ofjustice, this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad.”
The trial is indeed a turning point for Africa, which has failed to hold accountable repressive leaders like Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur but still travels freely in Africa. Habré’s conviction is a fitting tribute to those who have fought for generations to extend the end of impunity into Africa for perpetrators of grave human rights violations. It moves forward the efforts that began at Nuremberg after World War Il to bring Nazi leaders to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and expanded with the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.