The Campaign to Bring Hissène Habré to Justice - Phase II

Project location: Senegal, Chad
Project start date: September 2015 - Project end date: March 2016
Project number: 2015-030
Beneficiary: Human Rights Watch

On July 20, 2015, Hissène Habré is scheduled to face trial for brutality against his own people before a special court in Senegal, the Extraordinary African Chambers ("Chambers"). Habré's trial will mark the first time in history that the courts of one country try the former leader of another country for human rights crimes. The advent of the trial, 25 years after Habré's fall, is entirely due to the perseverance of Habré's victims and their nongovernmental organization allies led by Human Rights Watch. As the trial moves closer to reality, HRW has worked with these groups to ensure a fair process that will bring Habré's victims justice. In 2013, HRW released a 714-page study La Plaine des Morts (The Plain of the Dead), which demonstrated that Habré was personally implicated in the abuses committed during his rule, principally by maintaining tight control over the political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). The report is based on 13 years of field research, including detailed analysis of thousands of DDS documents recovered by Human Rights Watch and over 300 interviews with victims, witnesses, and former DDS agents.

The Chambers' investigating judges have now spent over a year conducting their own investigation. They have made four trips to Chad, interviewed over 2,400 victims and witnesses, recovered the DDS documents, commissioned the exhumations of mass graves, and commissioned experts to report on Habré's military command, the history of his regime, and to do a statistical analysis of the DDS documents. Human Rights Watch played a key role in connecting the judges to victims and witnesses, as well as experts who assisted in the discovery and analysis of evidence for the tribunal.

In preparation for the trial, HRW is processing all this data to create a chart with every witness, every crime, and every named Chadian official. The organization will combine this data with the information they already have so that the victims' lawyers, the prosecution, and the court will have a complete picture of Habré's alleged crimes for use at the trial.

Ensuring a fair and independent trial is at the core of HRW work. Since the Chambers were established, the Chadian government has been attempting to obstruct and control the case for a variety of reasons, most pointedly to ensure that Déby Itno (who served as military chief under Habré) is not prosecuted. When Chad's minister of justice announced in February 2014 that the Chadian government had filed to be admitted as a civil party before the Habré court, saying that the state considers itself a victim of Habré's economic crimes, Human Rights Watch launched a campaign against Chad's petition as a threat to the independence of the court. The lawyers presented a strong legal brief to the court, which HRW helped draft, arguing that the state isn't the victim of the particular crimes before the Chambers because genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture are directed, respectively, at "groups," "civilian populations," and "persons." On May 21, 2014, the instructing judges issued a decision closely following HRW arguments and rejecting Chad's request, and in September the appeals chamber confirmed the decision.

Habré is not among the most widely known dictators, and raising awareness and maintaining public support at the international level remains a top priority. The Chambers' mandate is to prosecute the "person or persons most responsible" for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.

For the first time in an international trial built within national courts, victims are permitted to participate in proceedings as civil parties, represented by legal counsel, and to seek reparations. Le Monde hailed the creation of the Chambers as "a turning point for justice in Africa."

On February 13, 2015, after a 19-month investigation, the Chambers' investigating judges found sufficient evidence for Habré to face charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.

The most difficult and critical part of HRW long campaign is yet to come, however. In order for the trial to live up to its historic potential, it must be fair, efficient, and transparent. HRW needs to ensure that Habré's alleged crimes are clearly detailed, the verdict based on accepted facts, and the trial widely broadcast to show to Africa and the world that an African court can deliver fair and impartial justice on behalf of African victims and that it is possible for victims to bring a dictator to justice.

The culmination of this campaign is the trial of Habré and an eventual appeal. With the support of the Nando Peretti Foundation, HRW works to ensure that:


• There is strong support in Senegal for the case.

• The victims' rights and interests are represented at all stages of the proceedings.

• Habré is prosecuted for his most serious and representative crimes, and the strongest evidence is presented.

• African activists and victims maintain their role as leaders of the campaign.

• The trial is broadcast and accessible to the Chadian people.

• The trial is an occasion to seek broader justice for the victims and to advance the rule of law in Chad.

• The trial is a transformative moment for African justice.


1.Maintaining strong support in Senegal for the case

One of the reasons that the case has been delayed so many years in Senegal is that the Senegalese public was not convinced that Habré was responsible for the crimes he was accused of and many believed the case was a foreign imposition. Although HRW intense campaigning over the years has helped raise the profile of Habre and his crimes, HRW continues to try to reach a large part of the population that still do not know who Habré really was, do not understand the crimes he is accused of, and are unaware of the depth of Chadian support for Habré's trial.

Even now, with more attention focused on Habré's record and his alleged crimes, Habré's big and apparently wealthy communications team is running a relatively successful campaign in the Senegalese press to portray Habré as a victim of a plot orchestrated by Chadian President Idriss Déby. In press conferences, articles, and on the web, they assert that Déby is behind the creation of the tribunal, that he manipulates the victims and the human rights NGOs, and that he controls how the judges work.

HRW is working to counter this message.


2.Ensuring that the victims' rights and interests are represented at all stages of the proceedings

The statute for the Extraordinary African Chambers provides that victims can participate in the trial as civil parties, represented by legal counsel. It is crucial that the victims' voices are heard and their interests are adequately defended during proceedings against Habré.

Over the years, HRW has assembled a team of Senegalese, Chadian, and international lawyers who have stood with the victims in Chad, Senegal, Belgium, and at the United Nations. Jacqueline Moudeïna, ATPDH president and a Chadian lawyer, is lead counsel for the victims and coordinator of the International Committee's efforts to bring Habré to justice. Delphine Djiraibé and Soulgan Lambi, two Chadian human rights lawyers, are also part of the team. HRW Senegalese lawyer is Assane Dioma Ndiaye, a prominent Senegalese lawyer and founder of the Senegalese League for Human Rights.

The victims' international legal team includes William Bourdon and Georges-Henri Beauthier, leading human rights lawyers from France and Belgium, and Alain Werner, a former prosecutor with the Special Court for Sierra Leone who worked on the Charles Taylor trial.

Very few victims will be able to attend the trial in Dakar, so HRW is developing innovative methods of communication and coordination to ensure the best possible representation of the thousands of Chadian victims. With the ATPDH, are organizing a register with information relating to each victim including their applications for compensation, as well as the travel of some victims to Senegal to attend hearings before the Chambers.


3.Ensuring that Habré is prosecuted for his most serious and representative crimes and the strongest evidence is presented

Over the past 15 years, HRW developed significant expertise on Habré's alleged human rights crimes and assembled the most comprehensive dossier of these crimes. The organization has worked with the Court's prosecutor to ensure the best evidence is presented to the court, including thousands of photocopies of the DDS files and a quantitative analysis of the files, and hundreds of individual interviews conducted in Chad and elsewhere with victims, witnesses, and former officials.

The victims' legal team ensures that the victims' interests are defended and that relevant evidence is presented before the Chambers. Legal counsel will be entitled to question witnesses and to make legal arguments before the Chambers.


4.Strengthening the role of the African activists and victims as the leaders of the campaign

The International Committee for the Fair Trial of Hissène Habré brings together all of the principal actors supporting the quest for justice-the victims themselves, the leading human rights NGOs in Chad and Senegal, figures such as the president of the Chadian Truth Commission, and international NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme, and the FIDH.

In June 2007, HRW created a Steering Committee as the executive body of the International Committee to ensure coordination of action and fix the political, diplomatic, and legal orientations regarding the Habré case.


5.Ensuring that the trial is accessible to the Chadian people

One of the major challenges to maximizing the impact of Habré's trial will be to ensure accessibility of the proceedings to the Chadian people, who are the most interested and affected.

The importance of these activities is reflected in the fact that the Statute of the Extraordinary African Chambers provides for all proceedings to be filmed and recorded for broadcast.

The Chambers' registry awarded the contract for its outreach program in Chad and Senegal to a consortium of friends who HRW helped bring together-Primum Africa of Senegal, RNC Justice et Démocratie from Belgium, and MAGI Communication, a Chadian NGO. Their proposal drew heavily on outreach field research conducted by Swiss transitional justice expert Pierre Hazan on HRW behalf in Chad in January 2013. The consortium's activities in both countries include production of TV and radio programs and short spots, holding public debates, and training journalists, and in Chad meetings with the victims.


6.Using the trial to seek justice for Habré's victims and advance the rule of law in Chad

For over two decades, the victims have also struggled for justice back home against those who worked under Habré-daring to file numerous criminal complaints, demanding reparations from the Chadian government, and speaking out against their many former oppressors. In September 2014, a Chadian judge held 16 of the former DDS agents over for trial. In a historic verdict, on March 25, 2015, a Chadian criminal court convicted 20 Habré-era security agents on charges of murder, torture, kidnapping, and arbitrary detention. The court sentenced seven men to life in prison including Saleh Younous, former head of the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), and Mahamat Djibrine described as one of the "most feared torturers in Chad" by a 1992 Chadian Truth Commission. Both men were also wanted by a court in Senegal trying Habré, but Chad declined to transfer them. The Chadian court acquitted four others and ordered that the Chadian government and the convicted people each pay half of US$125 million in reparations to over 7,000 victims.

The court also ordered that the government within a year erect a monument to those who were killed under Habré and that the former DDS headquarters be turned into a museum. These were among the long-standing demands of the victims' associations. The sentencing of state officials for human rights crimes is not only a testament to the courage and tenacity of the victims, it is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has been the norm.

7.The trial is a transformative moment for African justice

A fair trial for Habré would be a tremendous precedent to show that African courts can deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa. HRW is campaigning to ensure that there is no backtracking on the agreement to televise the trial, and are developing a cadre of Senegalese and Chadian journalists to cover the proceedings. During the trial, the core team of 10 Chadian and 10 Senegalese journalists who HRW is training will be gathered there and given the necessary facilities. As a result of HRW efforts so far, the AU has taken on an unprecedented role in pressing for and creating the "Extraordinary African Chambers." HRW believes that if the Habré trial is well received around Africa, it will provide the basis for a stronger approach to national justice issues around the continent.

HRW hopes that as a result of its efforts, the strongest evidence of Habré's alleged crimes will be presented to the Chambers, his alleged responsibility will be clearly outlined, the verdict will be based on accepted facts, and the trial will show to Senegalese and African public opinion that an African court can deliver fair and impartial justice on behalf of African victims.

Habré's trial will mark the first time that the courts of one African country deliver justice for crimes committed in another. It will also mark the first time that a developing country has prosecuted alleged crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction. It will be the first time that a court anywhere in the world has prosecuted the alleged human rights crimes of the former leader of another country.


More information on the Habré case can be found here:

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