He was a U.S. Ally in Africa. Now He’s on Trial for Crimes against Humanity

by Robyn Dixon, 'The Los Angeles Times,' October 4, 2015, reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa

Hissene HabreHRW Q & A re Habre’s trial

He was our man in Africa.  Hissene Habre, who ruled Chad in the 1980s, was a U.S. ally in good standing even as his government killed tens of thousands of people and filled prisons with enemies who were starved, beaten and tortured.  Last week he finally had to face victims of those times in court. There was frozen silence as former prisoners testified for the first time against the man who was feted at the White House in 1987 by President Reagan and was armed and supported in a covert CIA operation to fight Libya’s Col. Moammar Kadafi.

On trial in Senegal on charges of committing crimes against humanity, Habre, 73, wore the same kind of boubou, a flowing white garment, that he donned for his White House trip. But his face was shielded by a drapey turban and his eyes were hidden behind opaque dark glasses.  The victims could not look him in the eye.  Clement Abaifouta sat just feet away from Habre when the former dictator had to be dragged into court, shouting as the trial began. Abaifouta, imprisoned by Habre’s dreaded DDS security police for four years, found himself physically overcome when he saw the former dictator in court.

“I’m a broken man because of him. To have him just a few meters away from me, it was too much emotion,” he said in an interview. “When you’re shaking and you lose your voice and you’re crying, these are signs that you have very strong emotions.”  Abaifouta — jailed because his uncle opposed the Habre government — was part of a group of gravediggers who had to bury the bodies of other prisoners, sometimes 10 a day sometimes 40. Sometimes he buried old friends from school or university or people he had befriended in prison.  “I even buried my own uncle,” Abaifouta said. “He died in my arms in the cell we were in.”  Bodies were often left for days in cells, where there was almost no air, he said.  “We had almost no food and almost no water. Some prisoners drank their own urine.  There was no room to sleep.  Every day we were beaten.”  But now, he sees Habre as a desiccated, pathetic shell of a man.  “I feel no fear, because fear is behind me. I used to be afraid of him, but not anymore,” said Abaifouta, who has yet to testify.

Habre’s trial in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, is the first prosecution of a former African leader under the principle of universal jurisdiction, the idea that heinous crimes, unacceptable anywhere, can be tried anywhere.  It offers an alternative route for bringing tyrants to justice, with African leaders increasingly chilly toward the International Criminal Court in The Hague after sitting leaders in Sudan and Kenya faced indictment. (The Kenyan case was dropped, with prosecutors accusing Kenyan authorities of obstructing investigators.)  But perhaps the trial is most notable as an inspiring symbol of a victim who never gave up, despite a demoralizing 25-year battle for justice, a sign that faced with determined victims, no dictator is safe.  “I never lost hope,” said Souleymane Guengueng, 64, a former accountant accused by the government of supporting rebels. “God saved my life so I could get out of prison and tell the truth so people around the world would learn the truth.”

Chad’s truth commission reported that 40,000 people were killed during Habre’s rule. The court will hear evidence that Habre sometimes listened to torture sessions via walkie-talkie, urging his agents on, and that he was sometimes present. A document before the court, bearing handwriting alleged to be Habre’s, ordered that no prisoner was ever to leave jail “except in case of death.”  Guengueng, yet to testify, was arrested and beaten so hard on the head with a gun that he still bears the scars. He was jailed shortly after an abdominal operation and was denied medical care. The wound became infected.  “I was vomiting blood and pus all day. I was fainting. I couldn’t breathe and I thought, ‘This is how I’ll die.'” Three times he passed out, “and when I woke up the prisoners told me I was dead and no one came to take away my body.”

The torture employed by Habre’s security police, according to accounts of survivors, included the arbatachar, in which a victim was left hogtied so tightly, with the chest drawn back, that paralysis set in.  Then there was the “baguettes,” when a prisoner’s head was alternatively squeezed by sticks and hit. Some prisoners’ lips were forced around the exhaust of a running vehicle; some had water forced into their mouths with hoses; some were suspended upside down and their heads repeatedly dunked in water. “I shared a cell with people who were tortured all the time,” Guengueng said. “They would come back covered in blood. Their hands would not work anymore after they were held in arbatachar, so I’d massage them. We were massaging them to try to bring back circulation but they were in extreme pain.  “In the prison, everyone thought only of death, because you were tortured or malnourished all the time.”

In 2001, Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody, a driving force behind the Habre trial, visited the notorious “Swimming Pool,” a pool next to DDS headquarters that was converted into a squalid prison. Then he slipped into the abandoned DDS building to find the floors, room after room, strewn knee-deep in paper.  “One of the first documents was about the training of the security agents within the U.S. There were lists of prisoners. There were prisoners’ files with their photos and dates of arrest. These documents provide a road map to the repression that was carried out,” Brody said. “They corroborate what the victims were saying.”

One file recounted the fate of 33-year-old prisoner Rose Lokissim in 1986. Women who shared her cell called her a “guardian angel. She was the brave one. She was the one who kept up everybody’s morale,” Brody said. Lokissim wrote notes, documenting the deaths of prisoners, but was betrayed to guards. She was interrogated, and her answers recorded and filed in a document Brody found.  “She said, I don’t care if I die in prison. My cause is just. Chadians will remember me.  History will talk about me,” Brody said.  Then Lokissim was executed.  “It was like a message in a bottle across time,” said Brody, describing her file. “I felt this responsibility to make those words come true, by talking about her.”

The former U.S. ambassador to Chad, John Propst Blane, in an oral history interview in 1990 by the Assn. for Diplomatic Studies and Training, told how the U.S. gave Habre’s government “great mobility and great firepower” to fight Kadafi, adding that at times he met Habre almost daily to coordinate the massive influx of U.S. military assistance.  “I had C-5s and C-141s lined up on that runway” in N’Djamena, the capital, he said. “We were running an airlift in that place you wouldn’t believe.  “As you may remember, Mr. Reagan had a thing about Col. Kadafi. He didn’t like Col. Kadafi at all.”  The 1987 Habre visit to the White House “just went swimmingly. Mr. Habre and Mr. Reagan got along just dandily. Yes indeed.”  Brody said Chadians never forgot the Reagan administration’s role in keeping Habre in power.  “We need to ask ourselves how, in the name of defending our values, we end up supporting leaders who brutalize their own people. There are lessons for today, where the U.S. is supporting Uzbekistan and Egypt. We are supporting ‘our men.’ We need to think about what the long-term ramifications are.”  

Guengueng is looking forward to his turn to stand in the witness box.  “Today Habre is very small, because he’s afraid of us. He’s hiding himself in his white boubou and turban and sunglasses. He’s saying nothing, because he’s afraid of us,” Guengueng said.  Abaifouta cannot forget the bodies he buried.  “Every night I have nightmares of people coming to kill me. I remember the moans of the people in the prison cells, as if they are real,” he said. “But the trial will be a cure for me. It will cure me completely.”

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