When the US-backed Chadian dictator Hissène Habré fell from power in 1990, one of his victims, Souleymane Guengueng, vowed to bring him to justice. We speak to Guengueng and Human Rights Watch attorney Reed Brody, who joined the quest for justice against Habré. The story is told in the new documentary The Dictator Hunter. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, is one of the most brutal dictators the US has ever supported. Habré came to power with the help of former US President Ronald Reagan in 1982. He is accused of systematic torture and the deaths of 40,000 of his political opponents. Reagan provided Habré with millions of dollars in annual military aid and trained his secret police, known as the DDS. When Habré fell from power in 1990, one of his victims, Souleymane Guengueng, vowed to bring the former president to justice. While Habré lived in comfortable exile in Senegal, Guenggueng organized Habré’s victims to seek his trial.
AMY GOODMAN: The Chadian activists were joined by a “dictator hunter” from New York in their quest for justice. Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch took interest in the Habré case after former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in 1998. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to build a case against Habré.
Habré was placed under house arrest in 2000. In July 2006, the African Union called on Senegal to prosecute Hissène Habré in the name of Africa. Unfortunately, two years later, Habré’s trial is yet to begin.
The Dictator Hunter is a new documentary that tells this story. It’s directed by a Dutch filmmaker named Klaartje Quirijns. The film opens at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York this weekend. We will show excerpts of the film, but first, we’re joined in the studio by two guests, by the Chadian activist who has spearheaded this case, who was a victim himself, Souleymane Guenggueng, and by, well, the dictator hunter, Human Rights Watch counsel, Reed Brody.
Welcome, both, to Democracy Now!
REED BRODY: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.
AMY GOODMAN: First, tell the story, Reed. Tell the story of how Hissène Habré came to power, was forced out, and where he stands today.
REED BRODY: Well, Hissène Habré was a local warlord in Chad, which is a Central African country just south of Libya. And at the time, Ronald Reagan — when Ronald Reagan came into office, he was looking for ways to counter Muammar Gaddafi’s expansionist designs on Chad. And the very first covert operation of the Reagan era, before the Contras, before Jonas Savimbi, was putting Hissène Habré into power, even though he had a reputation for brutality. He had already kidnapped a French anthropologist in the desert, killed the French hostage negotiator. Alexander Haig reportedly wanted to bloody Gaddafi’s nose, and they supported Hissène Habré taking power in Chad and helped Hissène Habré — together with the French, helped Hissène Habré defeat the Libyans.
But at the same time, Hissène Habré turned Chad into a police state and created this — his private Gestapo, this DDS, that created dungeons all around Chad, that engaged in waves of ethnic cleansing against different Chadian groups. We happened to discover totally by chance, to stumble on the files of Hissène Habré’s political police, thousands and thousands of documents, death certificates, spying reports, that give the names of 1,208 people who died in detention, that tell the story of people like Souleymane and others.
Finally, in 1990, Hissène Habré was overthrown by the current president, Idriss Deby. And with the United States’ help, he went to Senegal, which is where he lived for — peacefully on — actually, before leaving Chad, he emptied out the country’s treasury and stole millions and millions of dollars and brought that money with him to Senegal, where he created relationships and built a web of protection.
And that’s probably the way it would have remained had it not been for the Pinochet case. And as you know, we worked on the Pinochet case, and the Pinochet case was an inspiration to victims around the world, who said, well, wait a second, we have a legal tool that we can use to bring to justice people who seemed out of the reach of justice. And the Chadian — we were introduced by Chadian activists to the Chadian victims, and we started working with them. And eight years ago, in 2000, on the heels of the Pinochet case, Souleymane and others filed a case in Senegal, charging Hissène Habré with crimes against humanity and torture. And he was actually arrested and placed — indicted for those crimes eight years ago.
Senegalese courts then, after political interference, decided not to pursue the case. The victims then filed the case in Belgium, which had a long-arm universal jurisdiction statute, and after a four-year investigation, the Belgian courts indicted Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity and sought his extradition. It was a complicated story. Then the Senegalese refused the extradition of Hissène Habré, and they then went to the African Union and said, “What should be done with Hissène Habré?” And the African Union, which was one of the major coups in this case, a union with people like Mugabe and Gaddafi and Sassou and Bongo, said that Senegal had to try Hissène Habré. And two years ago, Senegal agreed to the African Union request to put Hissène Habré on trial. But as you said, two years later, they still haven’t started that trial, and that’s where we stand today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reasons that Senegal gives for the delays? I understand they did make certain changes in their own laws to be able to pave the way for this, but they still haven’t actually moved forward.
REED BRODY: That’s right. Actually, Senegal now has the best laws on prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity. They’ve changed their laws. They’ve changed their constitution. They’ve named a coordinator to oversee the trial. They’re just going about it very slowly. And the victims do not have time. I mean, this is eighteen years since Hissène Habré was ousted. Many of the people who started this with Souleymane, who were with me eight years ago when we filed the case, are dead now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Souleymane, but first I want to go to the film and play an excerpt of The Dictator Hunter. Here, Reed Brody, you’re given a tour of one of Hissène Habré’s notorious prisons.
FORMER PRISONER: [translated] Once, this used to be a swimming pool reserved for the families of the French military. Later on, Hissène Habré turned the pool into a jail, a unique prison. I was tortured. They tied my arms behind my back to stop the blood circulating and to paralyze one’s arms and legs to make people lose their limbs. In this cell, for example, there were thirty people. All cells were so full, there was no oxygen. People died of a lack of oxygen. It is a very cruel way to torture someone.
Every morning, we would knock on the walls like this. The people in the cell next to ours would do the same to show us they were still alive. If someone died, we would ask them to take away the corpse. They would say, “How many are there?” If we said two or three, they told us to wait ’til there were five. Those who suffered most, we would lay on the corpses, as they were a little cooler. We slept on them ’til they were taken away.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of The Dictator Hunter. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re joined by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch and Souleymane Guenggueng, who was one of Hissène’s victims, the former Chadian president. Reed, if you could translate for Souleymane — Souleymane, what happened to you?
SOULEYMANE GUENGGUENG: [translated] Even now, as I speak to you, it was never explained why I was arrested. I was taken away from my office. And I can’t imagine human beings doing what was done to me. I said to myself, these things should never happen, and if God allows me to survive for this, I’m going to fight to find out why this happened, and so it never happens again. So it was kind of an oath that I took before God, and God helped me get out of prison, and he gave me groups like Human Rights Watch and people like Reed. And as often happens in Africa, this would have happened without anybody saying anything, had Human Rights Watch not got involved in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: What did they do exactly to you?
SOULEYMANE GUENGGUENG: [translated] The day I was arrested, I had just come back from the hospital. I was very sick, and I was actually supposed to go back the next day for exams. In fact, in the hospital, they thought I was going to die the day — that day or the next day.
But I was detained. I was locked up. It was August. It was raining. There were mosquitoes. There was water in the cells. You couldn’t even sit down. You couldn’t stretch out your feet in the cells. After two or three weeks, you were paralyzed. You couldn’t really even walk. It was kind of a moral torture, because I was supposed to be dying anyway. And within six months, my co-detainees, three times they thought that I was dead.
I was in five different prisons. I saw all kinds of torture. I saw how my cell mates died. From one day to the next, they would just be dying. As you saw in the film, those who were filmed who had their — this “Arbatachar” torture, in which your arms and your legs are tied behind your back until you’re paralyzed. These were horrible situations.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Did they ever charge you with any crimes? Or did — were any of the — were they picking up people who were involved in political organizations, or they were just picking up anyone off the streets?
SOULEYMANE GUENGGUENG: [translated] I was never a political person. Because [I] was actually living in neighboring Cameroon and many Chadians came by [my] house, and [I] was accused of — or they thought that [I] was supporting the opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play another clip of the film The Dictator Hunter. This is courtesy of Eyes Wide Films and Pieter van Huystee Films. In this scene, a group of widows who lost their husbands during Habré’s regime visit a mass burial ground.
WIDOW: [translated] We have come to mourn our dead. Hissène Habré must be brought to trial. We want a monument for the dead, for those who were tortured to death. We are here to mourn them. We want a monument. Help us. Help me to find my father. They killed my father.
We will win. We will not give up. This is not the time to cry. This is not the time to cry. The death of Saleh Gaba will be avenged. There must be justice for this. Justice! Justice! We want justice.
How can Habré say he didn’t kill anyone? What do you think was in that yellow pickup truck under the tarpaulin? Meat? I was there. If they called you between 1:00 a.m. and 3:30 a.m., it was to be executed. If it was after 3:30 a.m., it was for torture. I was tortured “Arbatachar” from 7:00 a.m. ’til 6:00 p.m. Habré tortured me with his own hands. The man is a monster. He put cigarettes on my hands. Look. You can still see the scars. They weren’t cigarettes, but cigars.
We were constantly afraid. You’re even afraid of your own child. When my husband was arrested, nobody came to visit me. Everybody stayed away. They were afraid something might happen to them if they visited me.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the film The Dictator Hunter that’s going to premier at the Human Rights Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater this weekend, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Reed, how unusual is it to have a movement like this led by the victims of the man charged, Hissène Habré?
REED BRODY: Well, I think it’s — it could be a very important historical precedent, because unlike the cases that are before the International Criminal Court or the Sierra Leone court, this doesn’t depend on an international institution or the United Nations. This case, like the Pinochet case, was filed by the victims, who are the architects of this effort. And it means, you know, that the precedent is all that much greater, because it’s a tool in the hands of victims and human rights organizations. On the other hand, it makes it much more difficult, because there isn’t any state or international institution behind this case.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask you, a structure of terror like this obviously depends on the person who’s giving the orders, but there were many others who followed the orders. And obviously many of them are probably still living in Chad. Has there been any attempt at justice by the current government for any of the people who are still in the country who were involved in this?
REED BRODY: Well, that’s a very important question, and it’s actually the reason why Souleymane is now living in the United States, because in addition to filing the cases internationally against Hissène Habré, he filed — he and others filed cases against many of Habré’s accomplices, who have been recycled into the current Deby regime. And those people are the ones who have threatened Souleymane and others and who almost killed Souleymane’s lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, a very brave woman who’s in the film, and have forced many of them into exile. Unfortunately, the current president of Chad is also — he’s not the kind of bloody, bloodthirsty tyrant that Hissène Habré was, but it’s not a state — it’s not a democracy, it’s not a state of law.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Souleymane Guenggueng, this happened to you. We see what happened to the women and their families and the many others who aren’t alive to speak. Why is it so important for you for Habré to be tried?
SOULEYMANE GUENGGUENG: [translated] For everyone who has lived this kind of situation, they need to know that as long as Hissène Habré is not brought to justice, psychologically, morally, we are not healed, and that remains in our heads. The example is, when we were in Dakar eight years ago with Reed to file the case, and when Hissène Habré was indicted for the first time, it’s as if — those of us who were there, as if something came into our heads, and we were liberated from these things that were in our head. We, the victims, only really us, the victims, who understand how we need justice in order to be restored to our full strength and height; somebody who hasn’t survived this kind of torture can’t really understand that.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Souleymane Guenggueng will be with Reed Brody at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York when the film of Klaartje Quirijns called The Dictator Hunter premiers at the Human Rights Film Festival. It will — the showings will be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The film will show, and they will tell their stories.