Possibly the most brutal dictator of the last two decades of the twentieth century.


The North African country of Chad was granted its independence from France in 1960. The government of the newly independent state suffered from revolt and insurrection. Despite help from French forces, it was never able to gain stability and security. By the mid seventies, the president, N'Garta (François) Tombalbaye, had become more and more oppressive and harsh in his rule. In 1975, the military carried out a coup (killing Tombalbaye) and put General Félix Malloum in charge.

Stability was still not attained and the government was plagued by internal dissent. The prime minister, Hissène Habré, sent his forces against the national army in 1979, greatly concerning other countries in the region. Nigeria and the Organization for African Unity (OAU) held four conferences in order to attempt bringing sought after stability and ending the civil war. In November of that year, a transitional government was established with Goukouni Oueddei as president and Habré as Minister of Defense. It was supposed to govern for eighteen months.

Once again, the government proved unable to calm and suppress the factions that were threatening to tear the country apart. Habré's forces began warring with those of Oueddei. Oueddei (the legitimate Head of State) requested help from Libya and in fall of 1980, some 7000 troops entered Chad to help the leader.

Oueddei was promised help from both France and OAU peacekeeping forces (3500) and in October 1981, asked Libya to pull out—something Muammar Qaddafi agreed to four days later and carried out weeks before the 31 December deadline. Libyan troops left the country except for a small piece of land known as the Aozou strip, an area that was part of Chad but due to an "understanding" was allowed to be occupied by Libya (the colonial governments of each country, France and Italy, had agreed it would belong to Libya but the agreement was never ratified by French parliament). This piece of territory became important as the United States got involved in the conflict.

The US gave nominal support to the OAU, but was secretly funding and giving military aid to Habré's forces hoping to destabilize the Oueddei government which was now allied with the official "enemy" and "rogue state" Libya. The occupation helped provide a "justification" for intervention (the Libyan intervention having come from the recognized government of the country to aid against attacks from insurrectionists). In the words of Secretary of State Alexander Haig, the US hoped to "bloody Qaddafi's nose" (www.hrw.org). Further, Zaire, one of the nations helping in the OAU, was a nation whose leader had close ties to the US and did not strongly attempt to "help"—they later admitted to "aiding Habré all along" (www.zmag.org).

The rise and fall of Hissène Habré

In early 1982, there was an attempt to reconcile the factions (there were several but the main two were led by Oueddei and Habré). Oueddei refused to take part because he would not negotiate with Habré as an equal (he was a revolutionary trying to violently wrest control of the country). The fighting raged on and Habré managed to take some cities, including the capital city of N'Djamena. The "peacekeeping" OAU forces did little to prevent the war (being either unable or unwilling to do so, as noted above). By June of that year, they had left the country. Habré established his own government and declared himself president that October.

The next summer, Oueddei made some strong counteroffensives, aided by Libyan troops again (this time without requesting intervention). As if on cue, French and Zairian forces came to Habré's aid with the US providing equipment and some advisers. The foreign troops managed to help stabilize things somewhat and in 1984, both Libya and France agreed to remove their forces. Libya did not pull out of northern Chad and in early 1986, French troops returned. Backed with US aid and weapons and French planes and soldiers (as well as intelligence from both sides), the forces of Chad were able to oust the Libyans from the country.

While France, considering the Aozou strip something that needed to be dealt with under peaceful terms, would not provide air cover for a strike on Libyan forces there, the US had no qualms and "using as a pretext an alleged Libyan attack (that French sources consider to have been a complete fabrication, Habré seized Aouzou" (www.zmag.org) in 1987. The US denied any instigation in the offensive.

A few weeks later, the area was retaken by Libya, followed by a Chadian incursion sixty miles (96.5 km) inside Libya (possibly with encouragement from the US who was still funding Habré and his forces). The two countries called for a truce in September 1987 and with help from the OAU, resumed formal diplomatic relations.

A year and a half later, his power was threatened when a coup was attempted by his interior minister, Brahim Mahamot Itno, and two of his military advisers, Hassan Djamouss and Idriss Déby. Itno was arrested and Djamouss was killed. Déby escaped to Sudan. From there, Déby launched offensives into Chad with his Movement for Chadian National Salvation. Continued success led to a November 1990 invasion of Chad. By December, the forces took N'Djamena without a battle—Habré had fled to Cameroon. Déby became president.

Habré's "legacy of brutality"

During Habré's reign in power, he (and his "accomplices") accumulated a horrific record for human rights abuses. In 1990, Déby established a Commission of Inquiry ("truth commission") to investigate the violations of the former leader and his regime. The Commission had many difficulties in doing its work. There were budget problems, reluctant witnesses—made worse because their offices were in the former offices of the Direction de la documentation et de la Sécurité ("National Security Service" or DDS), one of the worst offenders, and running into former members of the Habré "administration" that were "rehabilitated" and in positions of power. Further problems included witnesses who simply didn't trust any government commission and threats to Commission members.

It should be noted that Déby, as part of Habré's regime, almost certainly participated in and ordered some of the abuses (Chad still has human rights problems to this day).

In the course of the seventeen month inquiry, over 1700 people were interviewed. This included: "662 former detainees, 786 close relatives of victims who died in detention or were extrajudicially executed, 236 prisoners of war, 30 former DDS agents and 12 of Hissein Habré's former senior officials" (Amnesty International). They also visited sites of extrajudicial killings, mass graves (three exhumations were performed), and detention centers. In their report they noted that

It is only fair to draw the reader's attention to the fact that this investigation covers only a minute proportion of the acts committed by the Habré dictatorship. Neither time granted to the Commission, the means at its disposal nor the availability of victims enabled it to conduct an exhaustive investigation. (AI)

The Commission came up with a list of 3806 people (twenty-six of whom were foreign nationals), who died while detained or who were extrajudicially executed. Their calculations reached as high as 40,000. During the eight year period of Habré's reign (1982-1990) they found there had been 54,000 prisoners (both dead and alive). Most alarming is that the commission believed it had only uncovered about 10% of the crimes of Habré & Company.

"Open season"
During the regime, all opposition (which included friends and relatives of "targets") was basically "open season" for Habré's various "security" forces and police. Attacks against whole groups—most being innocent civilians (viewing in context, since "guilt" in these cases was defined as broadly as possible)—in "retaliation" for "opposition" activity. Of course, determination of groups was often based on nothing more than "ethnic or geographical criteria" (AI).

Thousands were arrested and often held in secret, even for simply not supporting the government. Thousands died in detainment centers run by the DDS from execution, torture, withholding of food, water, and/or medical attention. Whether a combatant or an unarmed civilian was captured, treatment was harsh and often fatal. According to the report, deaths came from being shot, burned to death, poisoned, tortured, or starved, among others.

As noted, the worst of the offenders was the DDS. It was an organization that, according to the decree which established it, was "directly responsible to the office of the President of the Republic because of the confidential nature of its activities" and that "everything concerning the DDS is reserved for the President and no person of that time, regardless of his rank or post, can interfere in the business of that office" (AI), according to the former Minister of the Interior and member of Habré's inner circle. In other words, it is all but impossible that the actions of the DDS were unknown by Habré—in fact it was said that he, alone, gave them their orders and, according to former prisoners, he took part in interrogations and managed the group on a daily basis.

Habré "personally oversaw the fate of detainees and personally checked food rations to be received by political prisoners detained at the DDS" (AI). Many prisoners were even held (and executed) at the presidential palace—one of the last actions of the presidential guard before he fled the country was to execute some 300 political prisoners being held at the palace. Many of the bodies were found inside the palace, others were reportedly thrown into the river Chari—a "popular" dumping place for bodies, according to former prisoners (possibly hundreds—or even more—of detainees were taken from their cells, executed and dumped over the years).

In his attempt to crush opposition in the southern parts of Chad, hundreds of people who had (or were suspected to have) supported the opposition were wiped out by the usual ways (bullets, fire, torture or various combinations), often in front of family members. Especial attention was paid to local leaders—meaning "suspicion" may have been mere pretense in order to "warn" all people that any opposition would carry mortal penalty. During part of the reign of Habré, future president Déby (then the Army's Chief of Staff) was stationed there. The men performing the actions against the civilians were under his command.

Besides arrests and summary executions in Chad for capricious or arbitrary "security" reasons, a number of actual or suspected members of the armed opposition groups were abducted in neighboring countries.

Refugees who repatriated (sometimes forcibly) were sometimes arrested and ended up dead shortly after reentry. Two who were killed had returned after a few years at a refugee camp in Cameroon. Gabriel Daïenhl (trader) and Jean Anhoul (priest) were killed about a month after returning. There is no known connection to any of the armed opposition groups.

Under Habré, even members of his own armed forces were arrested and often killed for not fighting hard enough or "lacking fighting spirit in the face of the enemy" (AI).

Crimes and conditions for detainees
At no time during the regime were political prisoners (which could be defined as "anyone" that the government decided) given any kind of attempt at defense or legal protection—no trials, not even sham ones for appearances were held. The government also "hid" the numbers and locations of most of them, family members never knowing where their relatives were or whether they were even alive (some prisoners were "detained" for years). Amnesty International visited in 1985 and was informed by the government that there were no political prisoners held in Chad, only "prisoners of war or those suspected of having collaborated with armed opponents" (AI) and they were all in "official" centers—none were in the capital except in the civilian prison. Which was a lie. Secret DDS detention centers were in the capital city (one notorious one in a converted swimming pool).

AI concluded that

Although the government had been obliged to confront considerable armed opposition, it is clear that hundreds of detainees...were arbitrarily imprisoned because of their membership of a particular ethnic group, because they lived in a particular locality, because of family or friendship links with other people who were considered suspect, or because a family member had escaped after being arrested.

The use of torture on detainees was quoted by AI as being an "institutional practice." Besides getting information and "confessions," it was used as a means of punishment and a way to create fear among prisoners (a "warning," if you will). Despite the government's denial of torture going on, prison survivors that were interviewed claim that "Habré personally gave the order for certain people to be tortured. Other sources say that he was often present during torture sessions" (AI). The Commission came to the same conclusion.

Survivors, according to AI, have reported that

some of the most common forms of torture were electric shocks, near-asphyxia, cigarette burns and having gas squirted into the eyes. Sometimes, the torturers would place the exhaust pipe of a vehicle in their victim's mouth, then start the engine. Some detainees were placed in a room with decomposing bodies, other suspended by their hands or feet, others bound hand and foot. Two other common techniques consisted of gripping the victim's head between two small sticks joined by cords, which were twisted progressively, (a technique known as the "supplice des baguettes", "torture by sticks") and leaving the detainees to starve (the "diète noire", starvation diet).... Some prisoners were subjected to particularly brutal beatings during their interrogation. One prisoner held at the presidential palace in 1986 reported that people were tortured by being beaten on the soles of their feet. Women held incommunicado were raped and subjected to other sexual abuse. One woman, married to a former officer in the national army who joined MOSANAT, was arrested in April 1987. She was tortured by DDS officers DDS who put chili on her genitals.

Another "favorite" torture was known as the Arbatachar, "in which a prisoner's four limbs were tied together behind his back, leading to loss of circulation and paralysis" (HRW).

It was not uncommon to crowd as many prisoners as possible into cells, which had little or no ventilation, the only "toilet" being a bucket in the corner. Any who died in the cell could be left for "hours or even days" and the only diet was a single meal of "sweetened rice and water" (AI). A former DDS officer interviewed by AI said his detention center only fed prisoners every other day. Given diet and conditions (as well as lack or withholding of medical treatment) even those not tortured to death had a good chance of dying. The mortality rate in the prisons was exceptionally high, as found by the Commission when examining logs for detention centers (which they included in their report).

US involvement
Over the course of the eight years Habré was in power, the government/military of Chad received extensive US support. The Commission determined that

US was supplying Hissein Habré's security forces with means of transport, weapons, clothing and communications equipment, while France, Egypt, Iraq and Zaire were contributing to financing, training and equipping the DDS, with whom they were exchanging intelligence. Again according to the Commission of Inquiry, in 1988 the United States granted the DDS monthly aid of five million CFA francs for its expenditure on fuel and the salaries of its officers. (AI)

The Commission also turned up a letter from the DDS asking the US embassy to double the amount (the Commission believes that this was carried out). US advisers regularly visited the DDS offices to "give advice or to exchange intelligence" (AI). In fact, those offices are next door to the USAID building, making one wonder how the US could not be aware of the ongoing abuses.

How extensive? In 1988, Congress was informed that the US had

provided $25 million in emergency military equipment and services under section 506(a) of the Foreign Assistance Act. Additional emergency aid was authorised in 1986 and 1987. These emergency funds and our MAP (Military Assistance Program) have enabled provision of three C-130A aircraft, ammunition, Redeye missiles, grenade launchers, rifles, four-wheel drive vehicles and support for previously acquired U.S. equipment.

Between 1983 and 1986, $28 million had been spent on "military deliveries" (both qtd. by AI). At no time was Congress informed in the data it received on funding of the human rights violations that AI and others spoke out about.

The majority of US military aid was not stopped until four years after Habré lost power (1994), claiming they "had not brought perpetrators of human rights violations to justice" and that Chadian military leaders were receiving "theoretical and practical training in the US in the promotion and protection of human rights" (AI). Again: four years after the violations that had gone on since Habré had come to power (noting that it is absurd to think there was no knowledge of this years earlier by the intelligence community—human rights groups and the United Nations had taken note of it). One also wonders about the general lack of outcry over Déby's similar (though not in scale) abuses since he took power.

Bringing Habré to justice

The possibility for justice
After fleeing to Cameroon, Habré ended up in Senegal. Reportedly, the president of Cameroon asked Senegal to "help him find a more distant place." Not managing to do so, Senegal had allowed him to remain there. After the Commission issued its report asking for the "immediate prosecution of those responsible for this horrible genocide, guilty of crimes against humanity (both Human Rights Watch), many of the victims and their families began to think there to be a possibility of bringing Habré and his cronies to justice. In addition to the Commission report, a group of Chadian citizens, the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), was formed. They included information on 792 victims in their report.

Senegal seemed a good place to attempt it. It had a fairly stable, left-leaning but basically democratic government in place since independence in 1960. It also has a mostly independent judicial system and a good record in the international community for promoting international rights issues—it had been the first country to ratify the treaty for the establishment of the International Criminal Court and ratified most of the UN treaties related to human rights (including the Genocide Convention).

Groups began gathering evidence for charges in as early as 1991, often in secret, fearing Habré might attempt to escape to a "more protective shelter." There was also no assurance that the government would go ahead with a trial (to avoid this possibility, they made the charges as a private prosecution, ensuring it would get a hearing). On 26 January 2000, the complaint was finally filed, accusing Habré of "torture, barbarous acts and crimes against humanity." The charges related not only to UN conventions (particularly the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture), but Senegalese law. In the papers presented to the court, there were "details of 97 cases of political killings, 142 cases of torture and 100 cases of 'disappearance' committed by Habre's forces during his 1982-1990 rule." Also provided was information on 736 arbitrary arrests and documents that Habré had the DDS under his "direct supervision, staffed it with his close friends, and required it to report directly to him" (all HRW). The Commission report and a 1992 report from a French medical team relating to torture under Habré were also introduced.

The proceedings moved along quickly (time was of the essence, lest Habré flee once again), testimony and documents examined by the court leading to an indictment on 3 February and the placing of Habré under house arrest. Official charges also left open the possibility to indict him and/or others on additional charges later. Things were looking positive, many hoping for the success found in similar attempts against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Outlook was encouraging, HRW declaring that "today's indictment is a wake-up call to dictators in Africa and elsewhere, that if they commit similar atrocities they could also be brought to justice one day." One plaintiff exclaimed that "our pleas have been answered...this is one of the happiest days of my life." Human Rights groups proclaimed it to be a great day, that "Senegal can hold its head up high today" and that the "country is setting an example for Africa by showing that Africans can take care of their own problems. The time when brutal despots could just take their bank accounts and move next door is coming to an end" (all HRW).

But Habré's defense team was hard at work. They claimed that the Senegalese courts did not have the "competence" over crimes committed in Chad (that is, according to HRW: "whether a state has allocated to its courts the judicial power to adjudicate a particular controversy. This is determined by reference to the law of the state"). It also maintained that no related crime that took place prior to 1986's ratification of the Torture Convention could be prosecuted and that there was a statute of limitations involved. Habré, for his part, had his agent make payoffs to newspaper editors to get them to publish favorable articles (this largely failed). Some articles did appear, however, pointing out that Chad was "no worse" than some countries (an obvious logical fallacy) and even that he was the "victim of a French-American imperialist plot" (HRW).

Problems mount
With the elections of March 2000, things began to look less positive. The opposition won, ending the longtime government. This was not necessarily a bad thing for the country but it was for the case. Habré's attorney, Madické Niang, happened to be one of President Abdoulaye Wade's closest advisers. In fact, he was appointed as a special adviser on judicial matters by the new president—while still being allowed to run Habré's case. In May, the Senegalese Bar Association ruled that he couldn't appear before a court while functioning in the official capacity. To get around this, Niang was made a paid judicial consultant for the government. He continued with the case.

More problems arose when the previously-prosecution friendly judiciary began to back Habré's requests for dismissal. Also in May, both sides met behind closed doors to argue for/against dismissal. The "competence" issue came up again and the Torture Convention concern was expanded, noting that 1986 ratification hadn't been "followed by implementing legislation until 1996" (HRW)—further, that the legislation still did not cover torture not committed in Senegal ("competence" again). They tried to argue that the statute of limitations for minor crimes was only three years, to which it was countered that they were major crimes—carrying a ten year period—and that it only started from the time when the prosecution became possible (after he fell from power in December 1990; the case starting in January 2000, within the deadline).

The prosecution pointed out articles of the Torture Convention that uphold the ability to prosecute despite those points: "Each State Party shall likewise take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over [acts of torture] in cases where the alleged offender is present in any territory under its jurisdiction and it does not extradite him" (Article 5, section 2) and "The State Party in the territory under whose jurisdiction a person alleged to have committed [acts of torture] is found shall...if it does not extradite him, submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution" (Article 7, section 1) (both qtd. by HRW). They also contended that Article 79 of Senegal's constitution states that ratified international treaties "override Senegal's legal code" (HRW).

A ruling was delayed several times, during which, the judge who had been in charge of the case (quite knowledgeable on human rights issues and probably sympathetic to the prosecution) was reassigned elsewhere. That it was done because of his fair-handed inquiry into the case and humanitarian sympathies seems a fair conclusion (smear attacks appeared in the papers shortly before the reassignment—none ever substantiated). Even more suggestive is that it was decided at a meeting of the Conseil supérieur de la Magistrature (Superior Council of the Magistracy) over which the president and Minister of Justice presided—less than a week before the current ruling postponement date.

On 4 July, the new judge ruled for dismissal. He agreed with the arguments over competence, keying in on the Article 5 requirement (and ignoring Article 7) that Senegal would need to "take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction" and contending that it had not. The court noted that both France and Belgium had enacted legislation "specifically granting competence to their courts over extraterritorial torture," but that "Senegalese courts do not have competence over acts of torture committed by a foreigner outside of Senegalese territory regardless of the nationality of the victims" (both HRW).

They additionally stated that Habré could not be charged with "crimes against humanity" (actually he hadn't been) because no such crime existed under Senegalese law.

The victims appealed. The limitations on Habré were lifted, making it possible for him to leave the country.

(This is not to condemn Senegal, as there was great outrage among human rights advocates, humanitarians, and various judicial organizations over the ruling, particularly over what seems to have been political interference from the highest seat of power.)

The struggle continues
While waiting for the appeal to be ruled on, victims in Chad took matters into their own hands. A month later, following a September 2000 meeting with Déby, where he assured the AVCRP that he would "support their charges, even against former officers of the DDS who still work in Chad's administration today" and that "the time for justice has come," seventeen victims filed "criminal complaints for torture, murder, and 'disappearance'" (HRW) against former members of the DDS.

On 20 March 2001, the higher court again rejected the case and supported the dismissal on essentially the same grounds as before. Outrage was again the order of the day as victims and human rights groups (there and abroad) vowed to continue trying to prosecute, this time hoping for extradition to Belgium (where no "competence" issue exists).

In early April, the president of Senegal requested that Habré leave the country (honestly, I am unsure as to why he had remained once house arrest and limitation of movement was lifted). Fearing his departure would endanger any chance for extradition (possibly of capturing him again), they requested an interim ruling from the UN Committee against Torture to hold him in the country. The UN came to their aid, telling Senegal "not to expel Mr. Hissène Habré and to take all necessary measures to prevent Mr. Hisséne Habré from leaving Senegalese territory except pursuant to an extradition procedure" (HRW).

So far, Senegal has complied. In an interview, president Wade stated that

I was ready to send Hissène Habré anywhere, including his own country, Chad, but Kofi Annan intervened to have me keep Hissène Habré on my territory long enough to have a judiciary seek his presence. I have done this, but I do not want this situation to go on. Senegal does not have the competence nor the means to judge him. Chad does not want to judge him. If a country, capable of organizing a fair trial—there is talk of Belgium—wants him, I do not foresee any obstacle. But they must act fast. I am not anxious to keep Hissène Habré in Senegal. (HRW)

HRW responded positively with

Human Rights Watch welcomes the position taken by the President of Senegal. The President's statements indicate that Senegal intends to respect the request made by the United Nations Committee against Torture several months ago, and reiterated recently by high UN officials. His statements also indicate that Senegal is willing to prevent Hissène Habré from fleeing to a country where he would be out of justice's reach. President Wade's stance gives new hope to the victims' goal of bringing Hissène Habré to justice.

While it does show a willingness to go along (for now), it seems the applause is premature (as it was in past). Until he is extradited, emotional restraint would be a better course to follow.

What now?
Unfortunately this story has yet to have an ending. As of this writing, Habré has not been extradited and there is no word as to when that will be (if at all). No update on the charges filed in Chad in November 2000. And, of course, no justice for the victims.

(If there are any developments that I am unaware of, please let me know so I can update this)

(Sources: www.amnesty.org, www.hrw.org, dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/bgnotes/af/chad9205.html, www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/ShalomLyb2.html, www.britannica.com)

(Yes, "legacy of brutality" is a Misfits reference)

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