Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, was convicted in May 2016 of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary African Chambers court in a nearly yearlong trial that began July 2015. The 73-year-old was sentenced to life in prison, and is expected to serve his sentence in Senegal, where he fled after being deposed in 1990. He is the first former head of state to be convicted for human rights abuses in the court of another country. He was found guilty of crimes committed more than 20 years ago including torture, rape, sexual slavery and ordering the death of 40,000 people. The verdict is considered a great victory for his victims. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré.
Sources: NYTimes.com, Economist.com, ThinkProgress.org, TheGuardian.com, HRW.org, BBC.com, Aljazeera.com
Born and raised in northern Chad to a family of shepherds, Habré was noticed by a French military commander for his academic success and invited to study in France at the Institute of Overseas Higher Education in Paris.
After returning to Chad in 1971, Habré became a senior local official and deputy prefect and was sent to Tripoli to convince the leaders of a rebel group, including Goukouni Oueddei, to lay down their arms. Instead, he joined the rebel’s struggle and became a commander in the Second Liberation Army of the National Liberation Front of Chad (FROLINAT).
The rebel comrades quarreled in 1976, ostensibly over Habré’s decision to take three Europeans hostage to bargain for money and arms from France and Germany. The incident, known as the Claustre affair, was a decisive factor in splitting Habré and Oueddei, resulting in Habré’s decision to create the Armed Forces of the North (Forces Armées du Nord, or FAN).
After a period of failed power-sharing alliances and a brief exile in Sudan, Habré’s FAN resumed its fight against the established Chadian government headed by Oueddei. In June 1982, the group won control of the capital city of N’Djamena and took control of the country.
Habré first came to power in Chad in 1982 in a coup that was covertly aided by the U.S. and President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He also received assistance and weapons from France and Israel as the foreign powers attempted to form a government that could oppose the regime of Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi. During his rule, Habré received over $182 million in military and economic aid from the U.S.
During his eight-year reign, Habré and his infamous Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS) police force imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands of Chadians deemed enemies of the regime. Evidence of mass graves and horrific torture came out during the trial. He is charged with over 40,000 politically motivated murders and 200,000 cases of torture.
When he was deposed in 1990, Habré managed to take over $11 million from the country’s coffers before fleeing the country. The money allowed him to live in comfort in Senegal for 15 years before being placed under house arrest in 2005.
Survivors of Habré’s reign have been instrumental in bringing about his trial and conviction, with over 4,000 registered victims. More than 90 provided testimonies during the trial. “(This case is) not being driven by The Hague or some international diplomats or prosecutors,” said Reed Brody, spokesman for Human Rights Watch. “This is a case where really the victims are the architects of the effort.”
Habré is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Pinochet.” Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, and was charged with hundreds of crimes following his 17-year rule. He died before he could be convicted. The prosecutor who successfully indicted Pinochet was in court in Senegal to hear the verdict against Habré.
The International Criminal Court did not have jurisdiction to try Habré, as it is limited to events that took place after the ICC was officially established in 2002. The U.N. International Court of Justice, however, ordered Senegal to try Habré to extradite him to a country that was willing to do so. This prompted the creation of the Extraordinary African Chambers court with help from the African Union.
The principle of universal jurisdiction, or the idea that a national court can hear a case regardless of where the crime took place, has not been used in this way before in international law. Habré’s conviction in Senegal is the first instance of universal jurisdiction being used to convict a former head of state for human rights abuses.
Following the announcement of his conviction, Habré began shouting “Down with France-Afrique!” in the courtroom. Throughout the trial, Habré and his defense team denied that he had any knowledge of the murders, torture, and rape. He accused “African traitors” of participating in a French colonial plot to discredit and jail him.