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Somaliland:Trial in Senegal of former Chadian president is a victory for civil society

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Former Chadian leader Hissene Habre reacts as he is escorted in to stand trial by Senegalese police at the Palais de Justice in Dakar, Senegal. EPA

Former Chadian leader Hissene Habre reacts as he is escorted in to stand trial by Senegalese police at the Palais de Justice in Dakar, Senegal. EPA

July 20, 2015

By Marie Gibert

Hopes have been raised that the victims of atrocities perpetrated more than 25 years ago by the regime of Hissène Habré, Chad’s former president, may at last find justice.

The former dictator is on trial before Senegal’s Extraordinary African Chambers for crimes including the politically motivated murders of at least 40,000 people. It is the first case of international justice to be prosecuted on African soil.

The chambers were established by Senegal at the request of the African Union in 2013 to prosecute people accused of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad under Habré’s rule. Habré has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990. He was in power from 1982 to 1990, when he was deposed in a coup.

A judicial co-operation agreement with Chad has enabled investigations to be conducted on Chadian soil. The chambers’ judges are all African and most of their funds come from the continent.

Network effect

The involvement and commitment of African nations – primarily Senegal and Chad – and the African Union in bringing the trial to fruition is unprecedented.

But it is also worth noting the exceptional involvement of a broad network of civil society organisations. The Chambers and the Habré trial are the result of a very effective and hard-nosed lobbying campaign. A coalition of civil society organisations, led by the international Human Rights Watch, publicised the Habré affair, gathered evidence and exercised pressure to bring about the trial.

While Human Rights Watch lent its experience, networks and lobbying capabilities to the campaign, it was supported by the perseverance of Chad’s victims’ and human rights organisations. These included the Association des Victimes des Crimes du Régime de Hissein Habré and the Association Tchadienne pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme.

The bodies are led by victim Clement Abaifouta and human rights lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina respectively. This network was complemented by their Senegalese counterparts, first and foremost the Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme.

These NGOs have relentlessly exercised pressure on the different actors involved since 2000 and explored every possible judicial option to bring about the trial. This included appealing to Belgium’s universal jurisdiction and a recourse to the International Court of Justice.

A trial like no other

How the upcoming trial is understood has been affected by key factors, including:

  • the involvement of a plethora of NGOs;
  • the length of time that has elapsed since the crimes were committed 25 years ago;
  • and that the first procedures to bring Habré and his circle to justice were launched 15 years ago.

The civil society network has not only exercised political pressure but made sure evidence was gathered, stored safely and made public. This helped legitimise and publicise the affair. But it also offset the loss of evidence as the years went by, as well as the loss of witnesses – many of whom have died since the events.

The organisations gathered hundreds of statements written by victims and witnesses. Human Rights Watch’s website brims with information and data. This includes a 738-page report of papers found in the security building that housed Habré’s main tools of repression in the early 2000s.

The website also includes a useful timeline and a question and answer page that recalls much of the background to Habre’s rule. Individual actors have also been keen to produce their own evidence, including victims and civil society leaders such as Souleymane Guengueng, who relates his experience in Habré’s jails in his autobiography.

More recently, the Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet produced an important documentary telling the story of Rose Lokissim, one of Habré’s victims.

And here, we are touching on another original dimension of this case: we already know some of the victims, who have not shied away from media attention and have played a key role in publicising the affair.

In addition, Khaltouma Daba, the widow of one of Habré’s victims, did not hesitate to appear in the Senegalese media in 2013 to counteract an attempt by the Habré clan to appeal to the Senegalese president’s and public’s sense of pity.

While one may have some misgivings about this individualised visibility, there is no doubt that it has given a very human face to the case and shaped our understanding of it – something we have not seen, for example, in the International Criminal Court’s cases.

There is already some evidence that this broad and effective civil society involvement has had an important impact on the way the trial has been prepared. In a recent interview, Human Rights Watch spokesperson Reed Brody notes that because of the insistence of victims, the dossier includes crimes committed against each of Chad’s victimised ethnic groups.

Civil society organisations also played an informal role in selecting who among the many survivors would testify at the trial.

A new page is about to be written. The civil society organisations will need to maintain an effective front to make sure that all victims are represented at the trial and that they are kept informed about the proceedings.

They also have to ensure that the evidence they have produced and gathered is used in a fair and transparent manner and that the trial is also a step towards the truthful writing of Chad’s political history.

Marie Gibert

Associate Lecturer in Development Studies at Birkbeck, University of London

Marie Gibert does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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