Last week the parties to the trial of Hissène Habré gathered here to make their closing arguments before the Extraordinary African Chambers (E.A.C.), a court specially set up to judge the former president of Chad. Mr. Habré, who was in power from June 1982 to December 1990, stands accused, among other things, of committing numerous crimes against humanity and war crimes against his political opponents.
This trial is a major event in the field of international criminal justice. It’s uncommon for one country to judge the former president of another country. It’s unprecedented for this to take place before a court expressly appointed by the African Union to pass judgment on one of its own “in the name of Africa.” Although the verdict isn’t expected until May 30, the Habré trial already seems to be a success: Never in a trial for mass crimes have the victims’ voices been so dominant.
And from this the African Union seems to be concluding: Never again. The leaders of its member states don’t want to risk being trapped by the very selective, and very political, application of international criminal justice.
Mr. Habré temporarily succeeded in derailing the opening of the trial last July by refusing to participate in the hearings. He was brought into the courtroom by force. His supporters created chaos. His lawyers refused to show up. The court had to appoint three new defense counsels and postpone the hearings.
But when the proceedings resumed in September, the court was ready. At their first noisy protest, Mr. Habré’s partisans were expelled and threatened with charges. After denouncing the trial as an “imperialist” plot, Mr. Habré, 73, could do nothing but wrap himself in silence and his big white bubu.
His presence just a few meters away from the victims on the witness stand was a daily reminder of his defeat. For a little more than three months last fall, the former president of Chad was obliged to listen — there, right next to him — to 90 witnesses, all of whom basically testified against him.
During most of the 1980s, when Chad was constantly at war either with itself or with Libya, which occupied part of its territory, the Directorate of Documentation and Security (D.D.S.) was in charge of suppressing the regime’s political opponents, real and assumed. Several thousand Chadians — there are no reliable estimates — died from malnutrition, disease, torture or outright execution in the seven secret detention centers set up in the capital, N’Djamena, or in other prisons in the provinces.
Robert Hissein Gambier, a welder who was arrested by the D.D.S. in 1985 on suspicion of being a Libyan agent, described to the court the torture method called “the baguettes,” the sticks. The torturer gradually tightens two pieces of wood placed over the prisoner’s temples. “It was like seeing clouds. I saw my torturers below me from above. Everything was down below me. Even the room was below me.”
Mr. Gambier, who today is hard of hearing and has bags under his eyes, imitated the night sounds in his cell and other prisoners’ groans; he described the oppression of bodies pressed against one another and their “burning, transparent, greenish diarrhea.” He was in detention for five years. Fellow detainees called him “the man who runs faster than death.”
The D.D.S. also played an important role in the violent campaigns the army conducted against populations in southern Chad between 1982 and 1987 and then against the Hadjarai and Zaghawa ethnic groups, former allies of the regime who had become its enemies. The same operating method was used repeatedly: Community leaders were targeted first, then the entire community.
Mbaissouroum Manda René, a farmer from Maibo, in southern Chad, was 19 years old when soldiers surrounded his village on the morning of March 7, 1985. They selected him and 16 other young men, and brought them to a big néré tree. The villagers were ordered to lie face-down. “And after that, all we could feel were the bullets striking us. Pok, pok, pok,” Mr. Mbaissouroum told the court. He was one of only four survivors.
In the end, the trial will not have revealed any particular ideology driving this political violence. Instead it will have shed light on the story of a brilliant, meticulous and authoritarian political leader who, in the words of a former police officer, “lived to take revenge.”
And it will have allowed Mr. Habré’s victims to upset the power dynamic that typically governs the relation between victims and accused in such trials, and to make themselves heard in court. Notably, several women testified they had been repeatedly subjected to sexual abuses, calling attention to a crime that, in this conflict as in others, is common but commonly overlooked. And all of this will have happened in the course of a trial far more efficient and cheaper than any other case brought before an international criminal court.
This is a victory for the victims, then — but also for the NGOs that supported them for many years and through the extended politico-judicial saga that followed the first complaint brought before a Senegalese court in 2000. Reports that Amnesty International put together in the 1980s corroborated the testimony of witnesses at the E.A.C. Human Rights Watch deployed its strategic might and media savvy — and no less than $1.5 million in the past three years alone — in the service of the victims’ interests.
So much so that the defense lawyers denounced the selective work of an international human rights lobby. Last week, turning to a Human Rights Watch representative in the audience, Mounir Ballal, one of Mr. Habré’s three court-appointed lawyers said, “In a way, you have squared the circle.”
Mr. Ballal and his two Senegalese colleagues, who were sent in as emergency backup to work on a case already well underway and who were deprived of access to a client who categorically rejected them, pointed out the weakness of some witness accounts. But they also emphasized the trial’s political dimension, in particular the constant involvement of great powers in the conflict in Chad in the 1980s and the current Chadian government’s biased cooperation with the E.A.C.
Defense counsel regularly suggested that the trial was the result of an understanding between Idriss Déby, the president of Chad for the past 25 years, several foreign powers and international NGOs. The government of Chad has provided 35 percent of the court’s budget, but it refused to hand over five defendants called by the court and prevented several witnesses from testifying in Dakar. And although Mr. Déby was Mr. Habré’s army chief during the terrible repression in southern Chad in 1984, he has been left undisturbed.
Nor was anything said of the role of France and the United States, which strongly supported Mr. Habré while he was in power. In short, this trial was no less shaped by political expediency than other major contemporary trials for mass crimes. And this makes it just as threatening — including for its beneficiaries, like Mr. Déby.
An increasing number of African Union members nurture a hostile attitude toward the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.), based in The Hague, whose first 29 defendants have all been Africans. The leader of that resistance is President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, whom the I.C.C. charged for crimes committed during an outbreak of ethnic violence following Kenya’s 2007 election, when he was still in the opposition — charges he subsequently managed to have dropped.
On Jan. 31, Mr. Kenyatta convinced his peers in the African Union to adopt a proposal to consider withdrawing from the I.C.C. The vote took place under the authority of the African Union’s new president, who had been elected the day before: Idriss Déby.
A decade ago, the African Union tasked Senegal with trying Mr. Habré and rendering justice in its name, touting the E.A.C. as an alternative to the I.C.C. Today, after the successful conclusion of hearings in the first trial for Africans by Africans, it is signaling that it will not take such a risk again.
Thierry Cruvellier is the author of The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer and Court of Remorse: Inside the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.