A Senegalese court on Thursday indicted Chad’s exiled former dictator, Hissene Habre, on torture charges in what human rights activists called a warning to African despots. It was the first time that a former African head of state has been charged with human rights violations by the court of another country. [includes rush transcript]
The New York-based Human Rights Watch led a group of rights organizations, including the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, in a complaint filed last week against Habre for alleged abuses during his rule. The groups filed papers detailing 97 political killings, 142 cases of torture and 100 “disappearances.”
A commission established by the President Deby has accused Habre’s regime of 40,000 political murders and 200,000 cases of torture. The case was inspired by charges of human rights abuses brought against Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet by a Spanish judge. Pinochet was arrested during a visit to Britain in October 1998 and has been fighting extradition to Spain since then.
Backed by the United States and France as a buffer against Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya, Habre ruled the central African nation from 1982 to 1990. He then fled to Senegal after his ouster by current President Idriss Deby, and has lived there ever since.
- Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch.
AMY GOODMAN: A Senegalese court last week indicted Chad’s exiled former dictator, Hissène Habré, on torture charges in what human rights activists called a warning to African despots. It was the first time that a former African head of state had been charged with human rights violations by the court of another country. The New York-based Human Rights Watch led a group of rights organizations, including the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, in a complaint filed last week against the U.S.-backed dictator for alleged abuses during his rule.
The groups filed papers detailing close to a hundred political killings, 142 cases of torture and a hundred disappearances. A commission established by the President Deby had accused Habrés’s regime of 40,000 political murders and 200,000 cases of torture. The case was inspired by charges of human rights abuses brought against Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet by a Spanish judge. Pinochet was arrested during a visit to Britain in October of 1998 and has been fighting extradition to Spain since.
Backed by the United States and France is a buffer against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Habré ruled the central African nation from 1982 to 1990. He then fled to Senegal after his ouster by the current president and has lived there every since.
We’re joined on the phone right now by Reed Brody, who is the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and has just returned from Senegal, where he was pivotal in the indictment and arrest of the former Chadian dictator. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Reed.
REED BRODY: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, can you lay it out for us? Who is Hissène Habré?
REED BRODY: Hissène Habré was the dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990. He over — he came into power by overthrowing the Libyan-supported Goukouni Oueddei. And for the eight years that he was in power, as you mentioned, was consistently supported by the United States and by France, seeing him as a bulwark against Gaddafi. Under President Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help Habré take power. There’s a famous quotation from Secretary of State Alexander Haig that they wanted to bloody Gaddafi’s nose. The U.S. then provided Habré with tens of millions of dollars a year in military assistance, as well as military intelligence information.
Habré ran the country for eight years. He’s accused by the current government, a truth commission established by the current government, of some 40,000 political killings and 200,000 acts of torture. He periodically, when — for instance, when a member of his government from a certain ethnic group split off, of carrying out pogroms against members of those ethnic groups, particularly the Hadjerai and the Zaghawa. He was finally overthrown in 1990 by his former military chief of staff, Idriss Deby, who is now the president of Chad. And he fled, as you mentioned, to Senegal, where he was granted, not political exile, but where he was allowed to stay and where he has lived until this action was filed.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how the indictment came to be?
REED BRODY: After the Pinochet case, we were contacted by the president of the Chadian Association of Human Rights, Delphine Djiraibe, to see if we couldn’t do with Hissène Habré what was being done with Pinochet. And because — primarily because Habré was living in Senegal, which is one of he few African countries that — where there’s a possibility really of doing the right thing, we thought that it was possible. And we sent researchers to Chad to work with the Chadian human rights organizations, as well as a very brave victims group that had, at the fall of Hissène Habré in 1990, documented hundreds of cases, interviewing victims and writing down their stories.
When Deby, the current government, came in, they were very — they were encouraging of these activities, encouraging of throwing mud on the Habré government, until they realized that the mud was going to — a lot of the mud was going to splash on them, at which point they cracked down on this documentation, as well as not giving — not following up their own truth commissions report. And the victims kept this information hidden until this year, when our researchers went there and made contact with them and began to work with them to develop not only the documentation that they had, but to interview — secretively, in fact, to interview witnesses and to get — we presented information, medical information, information that was an analysis carried out by a French medical team on torture under Habré.
And together with the Chadian groups, as well as a Senegalese team of human rights activists and lawyers that we helped to put together, we brought everybody to Senegal two weeks ago to file the complaint, a complaint that was in itself, for many of these — for the Chadian victims, just a day that they never thought would come. We filed the complaint with the court in Dakar. Two days later, the prosecutor — the state prosecutor gave his green light, and the instructing judge, who is like Garzon would be in the Pinochet case, began to hear the witnesses who had come.
And you can imagine that for these witnesses, who had been tortured, some of whose relatives had been killed, and who had waited nine years, the possibility of going before a judge and telling their story, even in another country, was something quite remarkable.
What is equally remarkable is how the Senegalese judiciary has done what I think very few — the judiciaries of very few countries would have done, which is actually to take the case, to act on the evidence presented, to hear the witnesses, and then to indict Hissène Habré, who is now under house arrest at his villa in Dakar.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Reed Brody. He’s advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, has just returned from Dakar, Senegal, where he was involved with the indictment and arrest of the former Chadian dictator, Hissène Habré. He remains under house arrest now in Senegal. So, there he is. Didn’t he understand in the last few days before the arrest and before the indictment was made public that he was about to be indicted? Why didn’t he leave?
REED BRODY: Amy, I don’t understand why he didn’t leave. We — it was our major fear the entire time that we were conducting the investigation in Chad. That’s why we did it secretively. Our major fear was that he would find out, and he would leave the country. When we filed the case, which had been under strict embargo, at that point our fears were really heightened that he would leave. And two days later, when the prosecutor gave his green light to the complaint, then we were — that was our major fear.
Now, we under— we believe that the Senegalese government may have taken measures without notifying us to make sure he didn’t leave the country. But the fact is, he didn’t leave. Perhaps he didn’t actually believe that this could happen. It’s very — it’s a new experience certainly in Africa, where you have an unfortunate cycle of dictators who pillage and brutalize their country and then just move next door: Mobutu, who went to Morocco; Mengistu, who went — of Ethiopia, who went to Zimbabwe; Idi Amin, who went to Saudi Arabia. The tradition has always been that you got out, and nobody bothered you. In fact, understand that he feels very betrayed by the current president of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, who gave him refuge nine years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back now to the point of the U.S. backing, U.S. and French backing. Talk about the extensiveness of this and what the U.S. understood about his reign until 1990, because these are not African dictators who do it alone, as you said.
REED BRODY: That’s right. We don’t have that much information. The Chadian Truth Commission itself accused the United States of having helped to train members of Habré’s secret police, and we understand that that is probably the case. We actually don’t have — we filed a Freedom of Information Act request a couple of months ago to try to get some of this information and have not received anything back. The information that we have comes from sources like Bob Woodward’s book, The Veil, from contemporary information in African magazines.
We know that Chad was considered to be an important buffer. Libya had territorial pretensions. There was a territorial dispute in the north of Chad between Libya and Chad. There had traditionally been rivalry, as I say, in the Sudan between a largely Muslim and nomadic northern population and a more farming southern Christian population, that has always been a source of civil war in Chad.
The United States — ironically, Hissène Habré when he was fighting against the government of Goukouni Oueddei, when he was still a rebel, kidnapped a French anthropologist named Francoise Claustre for three years and then actually executed the French military officer who had come to save her and had become kind of a real bete noire in France, and yet when France and the United States saw Habré as the answer to Colonel Gaddafi, they went in and supported him. It was actually the first covert operation, I understand, of the Reagan administration.
But I don’t have — other than knowing that there were tens of millions of dollars that were spent, I don’t actually have information on the actual acts and the acts, whether — to what extent the U.S. was involved in the abuses themselves. This is something we hope to find out as we go along.
AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, I want to go back to what we talked about at the top of the show, and that is this breaking news about Pinochet. If you can explain its significance and also how that ties into what has happened now in Senegal with the arrest of the Chadian ex-dictator.
REED BRODY: We understand that just a few minutes ago the three-judge panel of the British High Court upheld Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and Belgium’s right to take the Home Secretary to court for a judicial review over his non-release of the medical evidence, on which he’s basing his decision. Obviously, the Pinochet case is the inspiration for what the Chadians were able to do here in Senegal. The Pinochet case taught us that not only that the law — that there are laws that say that someone who commits torture can be tried anywhere in the world and that no one has immunity for these acts, not even a former head of state, more importantly it showed us that there were states that were willing to actually apply these laws, states like Britain and Spain. And now Senegal is now one of those states.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have other targets right now?
REED BRODY: We have. We’re working with victims’ groups in a couple of countries, looking at other potential human rights criminals who could be brought to justice. Obviously, for the same reason we didn’t want Hissène Habré to know what we were doing, we don’t want them to know what we’re doing. But hopefully this precedent can expand into other areas of the world, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: In the case of Pinochet and in the case of Hissène Habré, as you talk about the U.S. backing, I mean, Chile, it’s very clear-cut with Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who at the time was becoming National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. When does it come down to looking at who is the power behind the temporary throne, which seems to be the United States?
REED BRODY: I think we’ve got to ask — as we bring these people to trial, as we potentially bring Pinochet or Hissène Habré or others to trial, I think we’ve got to look behind them, not necessarily for criminal responsibility. The criminal responsibility rests with people who actually committed the crimes or who aided and abetted in a knowing fashion, in a penal sense, the crime. But I think we’ve also got to look at why governments like the United States or France support people who commit crimes against humanity, why the United States supported Hissène Habré, why the United States supported a regime in Guatemala in the early '80s that committed genocide against the Indian population, why the United States supported a regime like General Pinochet's, which committed crimes against humanity. I think if we just stop at the trial of the people who committed the crimes or who were involved physically in the crimes themselves and don’t look at the larger political lessons, I think we’re setting ourselves up to allow these things to happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get information on Hissène Habré, as well as Pinochet, what is your website? And also, is there — is it worthwhile to give out the phone number of Human Rights Watch?
REED BRODY: Our website is www.hrw.org, and our general office number is (212) 290-4700 in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: One more time, that phone number?
REED BRODY: (212) 290-4700.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, from there, you can get Human Right Watch reports on areas around the world.
REED BRODY: That’s right. All our reports are also on the website, www.hrw.org, as well as information in English and French on the Habré case.
AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody, thanks for being with us.
REED BRODY: You’re welcome, Amy.