This article was written by Roxane Cassehgari, an Aryeh Neieir Fellow with the Open Society Justice Initiative.
On Monday, May 30, the judges of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) delivered a guilty verdict against Hissène Habré, former Chadian president, for crimes committed from 1982 to 1990 during his repressive regime. The trial started on July 20, 2015 and concluded in February 2016. Habré was convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, summary execution, torture, and rape. The trial revealed Habré’s instructions to systematically use torture – very often leading to killings – and sexual violence on political prisoners held in secret detention centers, like the infamous Maison D’Arrêt. Notably, Habré is the first former head of State to be tried and found guilty for rape he directly committed. The EAC sentenced him to life imprisonment.
This ruling represents a landmark moment in the fight to end impunity for grave crimes in Africa. The EAC came to life after a long battle for justice led by Habré’s victims, their lawyers, and NGO allies. Habré, who had been living in Dakar, Senegal for over 20 years, was brought to trial after Senegal agreed to establish the EAC following the African Union’s (AU’s) request to try Habré “on behalf of Africa.”
The Chambers’ mandate is to try the most responsible perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide committed from 1982 to 1990 in Chad. This is a first model of universal jurisdiction used to try an African leader on the continent. The trial and verdict could potentially have a long-lasting ripple effect for other cases where victims seek redress for presumably untouchable perpetrators of atrocity crimes in Africa, including former heads of state.
Below is a summary of the many reactions to this historic moment.
Upon hearing the sentence, victims in the audience at the EAC burst into tears and screams of joy. The same emotions were reported in Chad where other victims had gathered to follow the verdict in live. Victims in the Habré trial played, in fact, a significant role in the judges’ decision. Sixty-nine victims of the Habré’s regime testified before the Chambers. The President of the EAC admitted that the testimony of Khadija Hassan Zidane, who was raped by Habré himself, was critical in determining his conviction.
Clement Abaifouta, head of the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Hissène Habré Regime (AVCRHH), who was detained for four years, told The Guardian, “I feel total satisfaction…It’s the consecration of justice here in Africa. I don’t have words for how I’m feeling now. It is a big joy, a big day. A victory for the victims.” Founder of the Association, Souleymane Guengueng, who also testified about his time in detention, reacted to the verdict saying, “I already felt that I healed after my testimony, but this is more.”
Chadian lawyer for the victims, Jacqueline Moudeina, who survived an attack in 2001 for her role in bringing Habré to court, also expressed that “this is the day of victory for victims…Africa has judged Africa.”
The consequences of this verdict may go beyond crimes committed during the Habré regime. Another counsel for the victims pointed at other African countries, stating that perpetrators will not be able to hide anymore. Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch Counsel and Spokesperson who supported the victims’ battle in the years leading up to the trial, said that “the time where tyrants could brutalize their own people…and escape abroad to enjoy a life of luxury is coming to an end.”
Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty draws similar conclusions: “This case gives new impetus for the African Union or individual African states to address entrenched impunity in other countries on the continent.” It also shows that victims “can have a voice and an ability to achieve justice,” Shetty said. REDRESS, an organization that helps torture survivors, said the verdict “should be celebrated,” but Director Carla Ferstman also noted that “it must be accompanied by adequate compensation and rehabilitation measures for those who were permanently marked by the horrible torture suffered or had a loved one executed or disappeared.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women, congratulated the efforts of the EAC in holding Habré accountable for committing rape, despite the exclusion of sexual and gender crimes from the original charges. In her statement, Mlambo-Ngcuka also recognized witnesses in the case against Habré, saying: “The brave men and women who testified exemplify the strength of survivors around the world who tirelessly advocate for an end to impunity, often at great personal risk.”
In a press release, the AU called the judgment “unprecedented.” The AU Commission Chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, went on to welcome the conviction of Habré and said that it “is significant in that it reinforces the AU’s principle of African solutions to African problems.”
Statements from others in the international community also indicate that the Habré judgment is a landmark moment for the fight against impunity around the world.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, ranks the conviction of Habré among other historic trials, such as those of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The High Commissioner also celebrated the trial as “great example of regional leadership,” congratulating the AU for its role in shepherding the creation of the EAC. The UN Secretary General joined the Human Rights Commissioner in recognizing Senegal and the AU’s efforts in this trial.
Belgium, which had issued an arrest warrant against Habré in 2005, applauded the “courage and determination of Senegal in delivering justice to victims.” The European Union made a similar statement, emphasizing the historic significance of the trial and verdict. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described the verdict as “a landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
It remains to be seen what will come next. Habré, whom all along the trial refused to recognize the EAC’s legitimacy, now has 15 days to appeal. Statements from his lawyers indicate that he will do so.
Attention should also be paid to reparations for the victims. This warrants particular consideration as other victims are still awaiting disbursement of damages for crimes that lower level Habré officials were previously convicted of in a Chadian court.
According to its mandate, the EAC can award reparations through a trust fund for victims, regardless of whether or not they have participated to the proceedings. Senegal’s Minister of Justice has announced that both the AU and the Government of Chad will be responsible for providing reparations to victims. Chad has already been ordered to pay victims 75 billion F CFA.
The EAC will hold reparation hearings and issue a decision on reparation before July 31.
Martin Luther King once sagely observed that whilst the arc of the universe is long, in the long run it bends towards towards justice.
Let not just the likes of Hissene Habre, Omar al-Bashir, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Un but maybe even Vladimir Putin take notice of Hiabre’s conviction!