A Long Walk to Justice: The Trial of Hissène Habré

This guest post was written by Alioune Seck, a Program Associate with TrustAfrica. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the views of the Open Society Justice Initiative. IJ Monitor is featuring a series of summaries on the Hissène Habré trial produced by a group of Senegalese law school graduates with the support of TrustAfrica.

With the start of the trial of former President of Chad Hissène Habré, the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) is writing a new chapter in the history of international criminal justice. The fight to bring the former strongman of Ndjamena to justice has been long and perilous, and few believed that such a trial could ever take place.

Hissène Habré took power in Chad through a military coup and reigned over the country from June 1982 until his fall from power on December 1, 1990. His regime is believed to be responsible for the death or disappearance of nearly 40,000 people, victims of a repressive system of government and atrocious crimes allegedly committed while he was in power.

Several associations of alleged victims were created in the 1990s to seek redress and initiate legal proceedings against Habré. These organizations filed their first legal complaints in 2000 in Senegal, the country where Habré has been living in exile since the end of his rule. As described here, a complicated legal battle ensued, including complaints filed in Chad, Belgium, the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the UN Committee Against Torture, and going as far as the International Court of Justice. The African Union recommended that Senegal prosecute the former president of Chad “in the name of Africa.” Finally, after 20 years of political and judicial negotiations, Senegal finally resolved to take the necessary measures for the prosecution of Habré. An agreement with the African Union was signed on August 22, 2012 establishing the Extraordinary African Chambers within the Senegalese judicial system.

A Court without Precedent

The EAC is mandated to prosecute the person(s) most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between June 7, 1982 and December 1, 1990. This court is the first ad hoc tribunal to be established under the umbrella of a regional political body rather than the United Nations. It is also unprecedented in that it is the first regional court with criminal jurisdiction.

Habré is now appearing before the EAC for international crimes allegedly perpetrated during his reign. He is accused of war crimes (including unlawful detention and extrajudicial execution of prisoners of war, and attacks on unarmed civilians), crimes against humanity (including manslaughter, mass and systematic extrajudicial killings), and torture (including intentionally inflicting pain or suffering on individuals in order to obtain information). He will be tried in accordance with the EAC statutes and Senegalese criminal law, two legal norms which will provide the framework for rules of procedure at this trial.

Off to a Rocky Start

Habré’s trial had a troubled beginning. When the trial started on July 20, 2015 in Dakar, Habré refused to appear before the court. He said that he did not recognize the EAC and challenged its legitimacy. The presiding judge ordered Habré to appear in court by force and police forces then proceeded to bring him into the courtroom. Since Habré refused to recognize the court, he did not allow his lawyers to defend him before the EAC. The court therefore appointed lawyers to defend Habré throughout his trial and granted their request for additional time to prepare their case. The trial was adjourned for 45 days.

Trial Continues

Following the 45-day recess, hearings resumed before the EAC. Although punctuated by commotion caused early in the day by the defendant’s supporters in the courtroom, the hearings got off to a successful start on September 7, 2015.

After reading the charges, the judges began to call witnesses to the stand. The first witnesses gave contextual evidence—the historical, social, political, economic, and cultural situation of Chad before and during the Habré regime. These witnesses also outlined the psychological profile of the defendant and described his political career from his first struggles to his fall in December 1990. The EAC judges also called expert witnesses to the stand. These mainly comprised forensic pathologists, ballistics experts, statisticians, and legal experts. The EAC judges then began to hear from direct and indirect victims. These witnesses gave testimony about the specific crimes they experienced or witnessed.

The Habré trial has proceeded satisfactorily to date. There have been no serious breaches of fair trial rights and the court-appointed lawyers are defending the accused competently and ensuring the adversarial nature of proceedings.

However, Habré continues to shroud himself in silence. He did not introduce himself to the court and refuses to respond to the questions of the judges. Nevertheless, this will not likely deter the trial. Many other defendants facing international criminal charges have also refused to accept the legitimacy of the courts and refused to cooperate, including Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Charles Taylor, but with no real effect on the outcome of the judgment.

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