|No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.|
The Habré Case: An African "Pinochet"
In February 2000, a Senegalese court indicted Chad's exiled former dictator, Hissène Habré, on charges of torture and crimes against humanity and placed him under house arrest. It was the first time that an African had been charged with atrocities by the court of another African country. Many commentators also believed that it was a significant step forward for the universality of human rights that a non-Western court had sought to try a former leader on the basis of alleged human rights violations. In March 2001, however, after political interference, Senegal's Court of Final Appeals ruled that Senegal has no jurisdiction for crimes allegedly committed in Chad. This is a clear violation of the Convention against Torture, which Senegal has ratified. The victims are now seeking Habré's extradition to stand trial in Belgium where a judge has opened an investigation. The United Nations Committee against Torture, in a rare move, asked Senegal not to let Habré leave Senegal except via extradition. Human Rights Watch, on behalf of the victims, had previously filed a complaint with the Torture Committee and had asked for these provisional measures. In the meantime, the case has opened new possibilities for justice in Chad itself.
Habré's one-party regime was marked by widespread abuse, even for a country with Chad's unfortunate history. In a country with a tradition of north-south rivalry, Habré periodically targeted various ethnic groups from both regions such as the Sara (1984), Hadjerai (1987), and the Zaghawa (1989), killing and arresting group members en masse when he perceived that their leaders were posing a threat to his regime. Just before Habré was deposed in December 1990 by current president Idriss Deby, a fellow northerner who earlier had been his Minister of Defense and military chief-of-staff, Habré's Presidential Guard allegedly killed more than 300 political prisoners who had been secretly detained at the President's headquarters in the capital, N'Djamena.
The exact number of Habré's victims is not known. A Truth Commission established by the Deby government, and operating under very difficult conditions, accused Habré's regime of tens of thousands of political murders and systematic torture. Most predations were carried out by his dreaded political police, the Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (the "National Security Service" or "DDS.") At its height, the DDS, whose four directors all came from Habré's Gorane ethnic group, counted twenty-three branches. The most notorious was the Brigade Spéciale d'Intervention Rapide (Special Rapid Action Brigade) whose 584 "highly armed soldiers," according to the Truth Commission, carried out "all the dirty deeds such as arrest, torture, assassinations and large-scale massacres." The Truth Commission also accused Habré of stealing some 3.32 billion CFA francs (4.26 million dollars at today's rates) from the national treasury in the days before his flight to Senegal. The Truth Commission called for the "immediate prosecution of those responsible for this horrible genocide, guilty of crimes against humanity." With many ranking officials of the Deby government, including Deby himself, involved in Habré's crimes, however, the new government did not indict Habré or pursue his extradition from Senegal. Indeed, even the files of the Truth Commission have been locked away since 1992, unavailable to researchers.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University