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From U.S. Ally to Convicted War Criminal: Inside Chad’s Hissène Habré’s Close Ties to Reagan Admin

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As the former U.S.-backed dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, is convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison, we examine Habré’s close role with the United States. Hissène Habré is a former U.S. ally who has been described as “Africa’s Pinochet.” He 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. For more, we speak with Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. He has worked with victims of Hissène Habré’s regime since 1999 and played a critical role in bringing Habré to trial.

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

AMY GOODMAN: In an historic ruling, the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, has been convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. He was a close ally of the United States in the '80s. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement welcoming the court's ruling. The statement read in part, quote, “This ruling is a landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. … As a country committed to the respect for human rights and the pursuit of justice, this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad,” Kerry said. On Monday, the State Department’s Todd Buchwald addressed reporters.

TODD BUCHWALD: I think it’s an encouraging moment, and I think that this day wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of Chad, of Senegal, which has hosted this—you know, it’s not an easy thing to do—and of the African Union. And that is that it’s an encouraging thing, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power issued a statement saying, quote, “I congratulate the people of Chad whose dogged, decades-long pursuit of justice made this day possible.”

We turn to Reed Brody, who’s still with us. He is counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, in Dakar, Senegal, was there in the courtroom yesterday when the judge declared the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, guilty. Reed, talk about the U.S. role in Hissène Habré’s rule in Chad.

REED BRODY: Yeah, thank you, Amy. I do want to say that, you know, the Obama administration has been squarely behind this effort to bring Habré to justice. Samantha Power, who you mentioned, was recently in Chad with Jacqueline Moudeina, with the victims. President Obama himself met with Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, praised the Senegalese effort. So, you know, the statements by Kerry and Samantha Power are in line with a strong support from this administration.

But that wasn’t always the case. In 1982, when Ronald Reagan came into power earlier, you know, Hissène Habré was seen as a bulwark against Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who had expansionist designs on Chad and was seen by President Reagan as the mad dog, the enemy. And as a way of—in the words of secretary of state at the time Alexander Haig, they supported Habré in order to bloody Gaddafi’s nose. And the U.S.—the first covert operation of the Reagan administration, before Jonas Savimbi in Angola, before the Contras in Nicaragua, was an effort to bring this warlord, Hissène Habré, to power, even though at the time he already had a record of brutality in Chad’s civil war, a mass grave discovered behind his residence. He had kidnapped a French anthropologist, and his forces executed the negotiator who had come to seek her rescue. The United States supported Hissène Habré. And then, once he was in power in 1982, France and the United States gave huge military, political support to the Habré government.

You know, we don’t have—there’s no—we have no knowledge of a direct implication in particular crimes by the United States, but from the DDS, from the documents of Habré’s political police that we uncovered 15 years ago, we see a man who was considered by the political police to be the U.S. Embassy’s liaison to that political police, the former head of the political police. And once again, the political police was the main instrument of repression under the Habré administration. It had an archipelago of secret prisons in Chad. The documents of these political police, which I—which I happened to stumble on 15 years ago in Chad, provide the names of 1,208 people who died in detention, of almost 12,000 prisoners of the DDS. The U.S., we know, trained some of those DDS officials—not in torture, as far as we know, but many of them came to the United States for counterinsurgency, for—in particular, for bomb diffusion and for antiterrorism. We know that the head of the DDS, at his own trial in N’Djamena last year, testified that the United States—that he was constantly accompanied by a CIA agent who was advising him. Names of the U.S. agents who are mentioned by the Chadians—in fact, they don’t have—they talk about Maurice and John and Swiker [phon.], and those are names of people who are listed in the State Department registry as people who worked at the U.S. Embassy. So there was a connection between the United States and Hissène Habré’s political police.

We also know that Chad fought a war, and Chad—with French and American assistance, Chad turned back the Libyan forces. It captured over a thousand Libyan POWs. Many of—the United States established a secret training camp in Chad to turn the Libyans, to create a contra force against Muammar Gaddafi. And this secret base, which even the French did not know about at the time, was led by a man named Khalifa Haftar, who later emigrated or was brought by the U.S. to Virginia and is now the strong man in Benghazi, who’s leading one of the factions in Libya. And so, the United States used Hissène Habré as an ally in its—in what was then the war on Gaddafi’s terror in the 1980s.

And all this time, of course, you know, although many of Habré’s crimes were not really revealed until after the prison—after he fell and the prison doors swung open, Amnesty International, as their representative testified at the trial, wrote 25 mini reports about crimes under Hissène Habré. Habré was aware, of course, of these crimes, but the world was aware that these crimes were going on. The United States, even as it supported Hissène Habré at the time, was aware that these crimes were taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the Reagan years and raids supporting Hissène Habré and his rise to power. Can you take it from there, from Reagan to Bush to President Bill Clinton, before—before George W. Bush? And then you talked about Obama.

REED BRODY: Well, of course, Habré was overthrown in December 1990, so it was still under the Republican administrations. Hissène Habré was fêted in 1987 at the White House. He got a state visit, or he got a visit to the White House with President Reagan. Our Freedom of Information Act requests show that even as Habré was falling, the U.S. Embassy was cabling back home that it was not too late, that Hissène Habré could be saved. Ultimately, the U.S. helped Hissène Habré reinstall himself in Senegal. That was in 1990. And he basically, from 1990, lived a life of luxury in Senegal.

And it was really when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on a warrant from a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, who was here in court yesterday, for crimes committed in Chile, and the House of Lords said that Pinochet could be arrested anywhere in the world, despite his status as a former head of state, that we realized that we had in international justice a tool to bring to book tyrants and torturers who seemed out of the reach of justice. And that’s when we were contacted by the Chadian Association for Human Rights, who said, “What those people are doing, what the Chileans are doing, we want to do that with Hissène Habré.” And that’s why Habré got the moniker—actually, we gave him the name at the time, “the African Pinochet.”

And frankly, Amy, if I could—one takeaway from all of this, it’s the hope that other people around the world, other victims, other survivors, other activists, will look at what the Chadians have done, fighting for 25 years and achieving justice, and say, “We want to do what Hissène Habré’s victims have done.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the film Talking About Rose by Isabel Coixet, the Spanish filmmaker.

NARRATOR: [translated] Rose Lokissim was one of the first women in Chad to become an elite soldier. After she joined the opposition to Habré’s dictatorship, Rose was arrested and taken to the terrible prison known as Les Locaux. In 1984, she was put in cell C, known as “the cell of death” because prisoners there, crowded into a putrid, windowless room, died each day. Rose was the only woman among 60 men.

FATIME SAKINE HAMADI: [translated] Rose was a good woman. If they tortured here, bound her, whipped her, she wouldn’t even move. She was very courageous. Even when she’d come back from torture, she’d still chat like normal with us, as if she hadn’t seen a thing. A good woman.

ASHTA MAHAMAD ALI MONIQUE: [translated] She was with the men for eight months, at the start. They took her out, and she stayed with us women. Then the prison director said, “No, no. That’s no regular woman. If she flees, you will see.” They took her back to the men. She was the only woman with the men.

FATIME SAKINE HAMADI: [translated] He was afraid. He said, “That woman is going to escape some day.” He told the DDS that she was going to escape some day. So they put her with the men in cell C. Just one woman, with the men. After eight months, they brought Rose back. She was filthy, smelling, with lice all over, matted hair. So we boiled water and leaves, and washed her hair. The lice were like that. We took them out. We had to get off the crud with a knife.

ASHTA MAHAMAD ALI MONIQUE: [translated] Rose was a good woman. In the morning, they made her go throw out the poop. She’d go out cheerily just like a man. It didn’t bother her at all. Rose was really courageous.

ALEÏNA N’GOUSSI JACKSON: [translated] She was already a fighter. She knew what she was fighting for. Her philosophy was already in her head. She didn’t like the regime. She did what she could to be rid of it.

DOHKOT CLÉMENT ABAIFOUTA: [translated] A woman who didn’t wish anyone harm. She didn’t want to see people suffer. Rose told us, “Stay strong until we can get out of this prison. Then we’ll change the direction of things in this country.” A revolutionary, because she had ideas that fired us up to revolt, to dream of a change.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Talking About Rose by the award-winning filmmaker Isabel Coixet. We’ll link to the whole film at Reed, explain what happened to Rose, and share your final comments on this historic—in this historic week, when the Chadian dictator has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity for the killing of—well, overall during his regime, it’s believed 40,000 people died. Reed?

REED BRODY: Thank you. Rose Lokissim was thrown in jail, and actually Rose would take notes when people would die or be tortured in prison. Rose would take notes and try to smuggle them out so that the outside world knew what was going on. And she was denounced, and she was taken out of her cell, and she was interrogated. And 20—15 years later, we found—in the files of the political police that I talked about before, we found her last interrogation report. And as she was, you know, being interrogated, as she was on her—you know, clearly going to be executed, she told her torturers, who wrote it down, she said, “I don’t care what happens to me. I’m doing this for my country. My cause is right. Chad will remember me, and history will talk about me.” And the only record we have of this is what her torturers wrote on a piece of paper that we found in the files of the political police 15 years ago. And today, history is talking about Rose, and people are talking about what happened in the Chadian prisons under Hissène Habré.

And, you know, one last thing: Habré was convicted for sexual crimes. He was actually convicted for personally having raped Khadija Hassan Zidane, a woman who I’ve known for 17 years. And so Habré is a convicted rapist today. And this is a message, you know, that even rape—I mean, Habré—that Habré is not above the law, and that Khadija Hassan and none of these women, including two of the ones who you saw on camera there who were raped, are below the law.

And one last thing, Amy: This one is for Michael Ratner.

AMY GOODMAN: The pioneering human rights attorney who just died several weeks ago. We had you on, Reed, here in New York, as his close friend, ally, colleague, who stood up to dictators and tried to bring them to justice around the world. Reed Brody, thanks so much for being with us, counsel—

REED BRODY: Thank you very much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: —and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. Does Hissène Habré go right to jail?

REED BRODY: Well, he’s been in jail for the last three years, from the time his—he was indicted. And so he’s going to go back—he’s back in the jail that he’s been in, which is probably the jail that he’s going to be spending his sentence in. It’s apparently a very comfortable—you know, comfortable and proper and modern jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, worked with victims of Habré’s regime since 1999. Those victims brought this president, this dictator, to justice, and they had their day in court, albeit many years later. As for Rose, she was executed 30 years ago this month, May 15th, 1986.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go on the campaign trail. Stay with us.

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