When Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, was arrested early one Sunday morning in June 2013 at his luxurious compound-in-exile in Dakar, Senegal, celebrations erupted across the country he had terrorized some 2,000 miles away. As president of Chad from 1982 to 1990, Habre slaughtered, starved and raped his people and pilfered millions of dollars. In 1992, a national truth commission estimated that he and his political police were responsible for systematic torture and the deaths of 40,000 Chadians.
Now in custody, the despot would finally have to answer for his crimes.
Or would he?
In his book, “To Catch a Dictator,” Reed Brody, an American lawyer who worked on the case for Human Rights Watch, recounts the long effort to bring Habre to justice. It’s an absorbing saga that raises a disturbing question: How do brutal fascists like Habre and other murderous heads of state evade a courtroom reckoning for so long after falling from power? For nearly 25 years, Chad’s former ruler “enjoyed a comfortable exile” with “villas and servants and dazzling views of the Atlantic Ocean,” Brody writes. “One thing we knew … was that Habré would not be going down quietly.”
The evidence against him was stark and indisputable. Yet Habre maintained his freedom by exploiting the complexities of international justice, stirring up remnants of his power base, and capitalizing on the shifting winds of African politics and geopolitics. His case underscores a dispiriting truth: Despots, still fearsome in exile, maintain an outsize advantage over their justice-seeking victims. Institutions for adjudicating the worst offenses of fascist rule are often slow, ineffectual or even nonexistent. As Brody observes, in its first 18 years, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the permanent global tribunal for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, “secured only three final convictions of rebel warlords, not heads of state.” In the absence of robust international action to redress human rights abuses, the victims, lawyers and activists propelling the case against Habre had to pioneer their own path to justice.
Habre, born into a Chadian shepherd family, showed his taste for brutality in the 1970s as a guerrilla commander in the country’s northern desert. But President Ronald Reagan, who came into office in 1981 with a hard line on terrorism, had identified Habre as a counterweight to the unpredictable Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, Chad’s neighbor to the north; to contain Gaddafi, Reagan provided covert cash and arms to Habre, giving him the firepower to take control of Chad in a coup in 1982.
High-ranking Reagan administration officials were aware of Habre’s penchant for violence, but the White House stood firmly behind its man. After an Oval Office meeting with Habre in 1987, Reagan praised him for what he called Habre’s commitment to “building a better life for the Chadian people,” adding that the United States “will continue to do our best, to work with France and other steadfast partners in the international effort to help reach President Habre’s laudatory goals.”
When Brody dove into the case a decade after Habre’s ouster, he had a large profile as a strategist, fundraiser and counsel with a major human rights organization. A longtime activist who sought to uncover atrocities around the world, he coveted the attention of journalists and filmmakers. He concedes, “I can’t deny that I love seeing myself in the media.” But African history and cultural sensitivities demanded that Brody rein himself in. “As an outside actor I needed to tread with humility and avoid reproducing a postcolonial hierarchy,” he writes. Brody knew he had to sidestep coming across as a representative, as he puts it, of “the ‘savages, victims, and saviors’ construct, in which white activists rescue black victims from black perpetrators.” He was also “keenly aware of the contradictions of being an American lawyer seeking to prosecute an American-backed dictator.”
While his instinct was to try to control everything, Brody accepted that he needed to cede the spotlight to his African partners. “Chad was their country, their history, their future,” he writes. “My African partners and I had to figure out ways to spread ownership of the campaign.” That meant putting Chadian lawyers, activists and, most important, victims center stage. Habre’s cruelty would emerge most powerfully through the stories of those who suffered. “The case,” Brody writes, was about “giving the victims a means to claim their dignity.”
Souleymane Guengueng, an accountant who had been locked up in Chad for three years on false charges of aiding the opposition, formed an association of victims to collect their stories and begin efforts to bring the despot to trial. In prison, Guengueng had eaten one meal a day, contracted dengue fever and malaria, could barely stand, and was overwhelmed by the stench of human waste and decomposing corpses in the cells. In 110-degree heat, some prisoners sought relief by using the cold corpses as pillows. Guengueng “took an oath before God that if he ever got out of prison alive, he would spend the rest of his days fighting to bring his oppressors to justice,” Brody writes.
Chadian lawyer Jacqueline Moudeïna, who survived an assassination attempt, filed criminal complaints on behalf of the victims and assumed a prominent role throughout the case. “As soon as Habré fell from power in 1990,” Moudeïna writes in a foreword to Brody’s book, “I started imagining his trial and imagining, too, that I would be part of it.”
Though Habre’s crimes were exposed through the Chadian truth commission of 1992, progress toward prosecution went nowhere. It wasn’t until 2000, a decade after Habre’s downfall, that a judge in Senegal charged the former Chadian ruler with torture and other crimes. Soon afterward, Senegal’s new president, Abdoulaye Wade, appointed Habre’s lawyer as his legal adviser, and the indictment was dismissed. The court ruled that Senegal had no jurisdiction over egregious crimes committed in another country.
But the decision ignored several important cases brought in the 1990s that had proved exactly the opposite. Those cases on the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides, and even the arrest of the former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, in London, were brought under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits prosecution of perpetrators of the most heinous crimes outside the states in which the crimes were committed. In the same period, progress was underway to create the International Criminal Court to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes when national courts fail to do so.
The significance of universal jurisdiction extends beyond Chad to war crimes occurring today in places such as Ukraine. While Russian President Vladimir Putin may escape justice as long as he’s in office, some perpetrators of Russia’s criminal actions in Ukraine could find themselves in an international court.
The legal trend also augured well for the Habre case. “Together, with the creation of the ICC, the arrest [of Pinochet] seemed to portend a sea change in holding leaders accountable,” Brody writes.
Adding to the grisly personal accounts of Chad’s victims, thousands of documents came to light in 2001 that directly implicated Habre in torture and prisoner deaths. The word “torture” rarely appeared in the records, but the descriptions left no doubt. In all, the documents contained information on 12,321 victims, 1,208 deaths in detention and 1,265 direct communications to Habre on the status of 898 prisoners. Some documents were marked with what appeared to be Habre’s handwriting, indicating that the former president had been fully apprised of the torture and killings. With proof of Habre’s complicity, Brody writes, “we could, in legal parlance, ascribe ‘command responsibility’ to him and use it as a basis for charging and convicting him.”
Still, months turned into years until, in September 2005, a Belgian judge, Daniel Fransen, indicted Habre for the second time. Under the law of universal jurisdiction, he sought the former despot’s extradition to Belgium for trial. The move roiled sensitivities in Senegal, where “the Senegalese did not appreciate the perception that they were being told what to do,” Brody writes. “The idea that a European colonial power would seek to prosecute an African president struck a raw nerve.” On appeal, the Senegalese court denied the Belgian request.
The ruling stirred momentum for a possible African solution under the direction of the African Union, a body of states working to promote unity across the continent, defend sovereignty and eradicate colonialism. When the African Union mandated that Senegal should prosecute Habre, President Wade finally fell into line now that “he had the full weight of the African Union behind him,” Brody explains.
Although the case plodded forward, the book moves along at a good clip in fairly brief chapters recounting the legal and political twists and turns, building suspense, and causing a reader to wonder: Will any of this persistence ever result in justice?
Brody’s obsession with Habre proves a detriment to his marriage, which collapses. As the case drags on into 2010, Brody measures the passage of time with a vivid analogy: “My son Zac was born when Habré was arrested for the first time [in 2000]; he was 5 when Belgium requested his extradition, 6 when the African Union ordered Senegal to host the trial, and so on. Now Zac was 10.”
At last, in 2013, Habre was arrested and indicted to stand trial before a tribunal called the Extraordinary African Chambers, established by the African Union specifically for his case. But the former despot refused to recognize the chambers’ jurisdiction and declared that his initial forced presence in court was a kidnapping. When his trial finally opened, in July 2015, dozens of his supporters swarmed the courtroom chanting slogans. Habre sprang up and shouted with them until guards dragged him out while he cried: “This is a farce! This is a farce!” When he refused to return to the courtroom the following day, Senegalese guards carried him in “kicking and screaming, like a petulant child,” Brody recounts. During the trial, the former president “sat in a trancelike silence,” Brody observes, “never turning to face the witnesses.” His body was wrapped in a white boubou, and a turban hid his entire face, except for a pair of large, dark sunglasses.
The testimony was vivid and unsettling. Mahamat Nour Dadji was 17 when he was hustled off to the political police headquarters. What he saw shocked him: agents using pliers to tear out a man’s fingernails; a prisoner with his arms and legs tied behind his back in a form of torture known as the arbatachar.
Clément Abaifouta, who spent four years in prison, recounted tossing dead inmates onto a truck and burying them in a mass grave that became known as the Plain of the Dead.
Khadidja Hassan Zidane described her ruined life: the execution of her husband, the torture of her mother, the seizure of her family’s property. She pointed to two spots on her head where agents unleashed bursts of electric current and showed electrocution scars on her chest. Zidane also had a long-held secret. Overcoming her shame, she told the court she was enslaved at a desert air base where she and other women were raped repeatedly by Habre’s soldiers — and by the president himself.
In May 2016, after more than two decades of luxurious exile, Habre was found guilty of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and of being part of a “joint criminal enterprise” to torture and kill opponents. He was also convicted of rape, but that ruling was overturned on appeal because that charge was not included in the original indictment. Every other judgment stood.
“This was it,” Brody writes. “Complete victory. The joy was indescribable.”
Though Brody comes across at times as a man in need of glory, he learned to look beyond his own contributions. “An African court had found an African dictator guilty of atrocious crimes … thanks to a campaign mounted by his African victims,” he notes in the epilogue.
Sentenced to life in prison, Habre kept scheming for his freedom until his death on Aug. 24, 2021.
Convicting Habre was a masterful success. Just as significant was the next step: depositing the murderous dictator in jail. Other despots convicted of crimes against humanity, even after years of evading justice, never spend a day in prison. Consider Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was Ethiopia’s head of state from 1977 to 1991, when he fled the country. Believed responsible for as many as 2 million deaths during his rule, Mengistu was convicted of genocide in absentia in Ethiopia in 2006. The court verdict is unenforced: Mengistu lives free in Zimbabwe.
Guatemala’s dictator Efrain Rios Montt came to power in a coup in 1982, and within three months of his barbarous rule some 10,000 people were slaughtered. He was deposed after 17 months in power. Thirty years later, in 2013, he was convicted of genocide in a Guatemalan court. The verdict was quickly annulled on a technicality, and Rios Montt died before a retrial was completed. The former president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, had been in power for two decades in 2009 when he was indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in mass killings and rape in Darfur beginning in 2003. Ignoring the ICC, which Sudan didn’t recognize, Bashir remained Sudan’s leader until he was ousted in a coup in 2019.
Though it took long and came at a cost, Chadians tasted justice while many victims in other countries have not. Habre was finally locked away almost 35 years after his bloody reign began. Some victims didn’t live long enough to see the outcome. Today, many survivors live in poverty, suffering physical and emotional scars, and have yet to see any promised compensation from the millions of dollars Habre looted from his country.
Yet lawyer Moudeïna sees a lesson in all the suffering. What she and her fellow Chadians accomplished has set a precedent that “is now inspiring victims of abominable crimes in places like the Gambia, the Central African Republic, and Côte d’Ivoire,” Moudeïna writes in her foreword. “For us, the Habré case is a source of huge pride, the first milestone in a much broader fight.”
Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Barack and Joe: The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership” and “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights.”
To Catch a Dictator
The Pursuit and Trial of Hissène Habré
By Reed Brody
Columbia University Press. 279 pp. $32
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.