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U.S.-Backed Chadian Dictator Hissène Habré Faces War Crimes Trial in Historic Win for His Victims

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Known as “Africa’s Pinochet,” the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, has been detained in Senegal. Habré is expected to face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for systematic torture and the killings of tens of thousands of opponents during his eight years in power in the 1980s. If the case proceeds, he will eventually stand trial in a special court established in Senegal after a 22-year campaign led by his victims. Habré would be the first African leader to be tried for atrocities in Africa instead of in an international tribunal. We discuss the case with attorney Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who has worked with victims of Habré’s regime since 1999. Brody discusses Habré’s arrest in the context of the recent prosecution of two other U.S.-backed dictators: Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to a historic milestone for justice in Africa. The former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, has been detained in Senegal, where he’s been—where he’s lived in exile since being ousted in 1990. Known as “Africa’s Pinochet,” Habré is expected to face charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for systematic torture and the killings of tens of thousands of opponents during his eight years in power. If the case proceeds, he will eventually stand trial in a special court established in Senegal after a 22-year campaign led by his victims. Habré would be the first African leader to be tried for atrocities in Africa instead of in an international tribunal.

AMY GOODMAN: Habré came to power with the help of the Reagan administration in 1982. The U.S. provided Habré with millions of dollars in annual military aid and trained his secret police, known as the DDS. It’s believed some 40,000 people died under his rule.

Clement Abaifouta is one of the key witnesses for the prosecution and president of the Chadian Victims’ Association. In this clip from Human Rights Watch, he shows the field where he was forced to bury more than a thousand people over the course of four years.

CLEMENT ABAIFOUTA: [translated] And right now, we are coming to the common grave. And from here on, it is just corpses. From the common grave to way back, it’s just all corpses every day. It was seven, eight, 10, 20, 30, 40, every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Since Habré’s fall from power in 1990, Clement Abaifouta and other victims have waged a tireless campaign to bring Habré to trial. But justice has long been elusive. Habré was placed under house arrest in 2000, but his case lagged for over a decade until now.

Well, for more, we’re joined by someone who’s played a key role in the effort to bring Hissène Habré to justice: Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in Brussel. He has worked with Hissène Habré’s victims since 1999, is lead counsel in their case.

Talk about the latest developments of him being brought into detention in Senegal, Reed.

REED BRODY: Thank you. Well, as you said, it’s been 22 years. Finally, last year, there were two breakthroughs in this case. First was the election of Macky Sall as president of Senegal. And the victims had been lobbying Macky Sall for many years. And when he came into office, he said that he was going to finally allow this trial to go forward. And second, there was a decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague that ordered Senegal to prosecute Habré without further delay, if it did not extradite him. And Senegal and the African Union came together and created this special court within the courts of Senegal to try crimes committed in Chad during Habré’s period. And the prosecutor has just come back from a trip to Chad. He has all the dossiers that we had put together, that the Belgians had put together over several years. And finally now, he’s going to ask for Hissène Habré’s indictment on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

AARON MATÉ: I want to turn to an excerpt of The Dictator Hunter, a film about Reed Brody’s work. In this clip, he’s given a tour of one of Hissène Habré’s notorious prisons.

ISMAEL HACHIM: [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 30 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.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Ismael Hachim from the film The Dictator Hunter. Reed, can you talk to us about the role of Hissène Habré’s victims in bringing him to justice?

REED BRODY: Well, what’s very interesting about this case is that it’s not being driven by The Hague or some international diplomats or prosecutors. This is a case where really the victims are the architects of the effort. And it’s has been this 22-year campaign by people like the people you saw on the screen pressing for justice. And so, it’s a very empowering kind of a process.

And the victims will actually be parties in the trial. The victims will have their own legal team. And what we hope is that when this trial is broadcast all over Africa and back to Chad, when the people see the Chadian lawyers, the Chadian victims presenting their testimony, examining witnesses, Chadian lawyer cross-examining Hissène Habré, that this could be an inspiration to people who are looking for justice all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role of the United States in propping up Hissène Habré for all of the years that he was in power?

REED BRODY: Sure. The United States saw—under Ronald Reagan, saw Hissène Habré as a bulwark against Muammar Gaddafi. Just as President Reagan took office, Gaddafi and the then-president of Chad, Goukouni Oueddei, had signed an agreement to merge. And Chadian—Libyan troops were entering Chad and occupying the north of Chad. And the U.S. saw Chad as the soft underbelly of the Libyan—of the Libyan government. And Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly wanted to aid Hissène Habré, who was then a local warlord, as a way of bloodying Gaddafi’s nose. And so, the U.S. gave assistance to Habré to help him take power, and then gave military and economic assistance to Habré throughout his government, even as he was turning his country into a police state. One of the documents that we recovered in Habré’s—many years ago, I stumbled on the files of Hissène Habré’s political police, tens of thousands of documents.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you stumble on them?

REED BRODY: In an abandoned building in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena. And we now have all these documents on CD-ROM. We have the lists of names of people who died, of people who were in prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: And you just found these in this abandoned building?

REED BRODY: Yeah. We were doing a film for a Swiss TV program on the case, and we asked to visit the headquarters of his former political police. And there, in room after room, it was like—we were finding these documents. And one—actually, one of the very first documents we scooped up was a document in which several of the members of the DDS, Habré’s political police, received training in the United States. And when we cross-checked these names—in fact, I’ve interviewed a couple of the people—some of these were the most feared torturers in Chad, who were receiving training in the U.S. Now, I don’t say that they received training in torture—we have no evidence of that. But the U.S. was intimately involved with Habré’s political police. There was a U.S. adviser with Habré’s political police. And even to the very last day of Habré’s government, the U.S. was giving it military assistance.

AARON MATÉ: Reed, what about the officials in Chad who worked with Habré? Could this case open the way to charges against them?

REED BRODY: Well, it already has, in fact. I mean, we’ve been hoping that the approach of a trial of Hissène Habré abroad would also change the situation in Chad, because many of these people remain in powerful positions. And in fact, one of them, a police chief, who is being sued by his victims in Chad, tried to assassinate the Chadian lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, who’s leading the case in Chad. She had a grenade thrown at her. And now, just in the last few weeks, actually, the Chadian government, seeing that there was justice being done on the international front, has moved to arrest and has arrested many of Habré’s accomplices within Chad.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, when will this trial take place? And where exactly is Hissène Habré right now?

REED BRODY: Well, today he’s at a police station, where he’s being held for questioning.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama was just in Senegal.

REED BRODY: President Obama, actually—and I have to say that the United States has—under President Obama, has been very supportive of this trial. And President Obama, when he met with President Macky Sall, congratulated him on moving forward, and the United States is providing a million dollars, together with many other countries, for the support of this special court.

We’re expecting today or tomorrow the indictment of Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity. Then, the judges, the investigating judges, will have 15 months to investigate the charges. And so, we’re not looking at a trial here for another year and a half, as these charges are investigated in Chad.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed, can you talk about the significance, not only of Hissène Habré being picked up now and going to trial in Senegal, but you also have these other cases that you’ve been involved with also? You’ve got Duvalier in Haiti, and you’ve got Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala.

REED BRODY: Well, it’s very interesting. I mean, you have three U.S.-backed dictators from the 1980s all facing charges for crimes against humanity—Ríos Montt in Guatemala, Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti. And in each case, really, it’s taken, you know, the victims. I mean, in Guatemala, the Ixil Maya Indians, who have fought for three decades, you know, telling their stories again and again, bringing people up to the grave, this—in each case, the victims have struggled for all this time. In Haiti, people like Boby Duval and Michèle Montas, you know, who refused to allow fear to dominate, and when Duvalier came back into the country, they filed charges.

And, you know, this is a different kind of a justice from The Hague. This is justice at a national level, where the victims are the architects of the procedure, where the cases are being played out in front of the Guatemalan people, in front of the Haitian people. In the case of Senegal, of course, the case is happening in Senegal. And one of our big challenges for the case of Hissène Habré is to make sure that this trial in Senegal is accessible on TV, makes a difference to people back in Chad. But this is a very positive development for justice at the national level.

AMY GOODMAN: How will you make the case of Hissène Habré available to people all over the world, the trial of him?

REED BRODY: Well, the budget that we’ve helped to put together includes over a million euros, $1.3 million, for outreach activities, for televisions, for community meetings, for bringing journalists and human rights activists from Chad to Senegal, bringing journalists from Senegal to Chad, because these countries are very far apart and don’t have any direct way, even means of communication.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it important to put this trial out to the world?

REED BRODY: Well, because I think—for many reasons. First of all, to—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

REED BRODY: Sure. To show—to show that victims can bring to justice a dictator. And I think that—you know, this case was inspired by the Pinochet case, and we hope that this case will inspire many others.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody, we want to thank you very much for being with us, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch.

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