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Hissene Habré’s Trial Reveals An Ugly Side Of U.S. Foreign Policy History

Former Chad dictator Hissene Habre leaves the court in Dakar, Senegal, Nov. 25, 2005. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM
Former Chad dictator Hissene Habre leaves the court in Dakar, Senegal, Nov. 25, 2005. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM

Throughout the historic nine-month trial, nearly 100 survivors testified about their horrific suffering under former Chadian President Hissene Habré. They described mass graves, prison cells shared with decomposing corpses, sex trafficking, and excruciating torture. And on Monday, they shed tears when they learned of the guilty verdict.

The Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal sentenced Habré, the dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990, to life in prison for crimes against humanity, torture, and rape — a victory for the survivors and their families.

But the trial is not just significant for the survivors and for human rights advocates. It also serves as a stark reminder of the darker sides of U.S. foreign policy. Habré, who has been accused of killing 40,000 individuals and torturing hundreds of thousands more, also received millions of dollars in military and economic aid from the United States during his rule of Chad from from 1982 to 1990.

If you’re not sure what exactly happened during the reign of Habré — or why this trial was so important — we have you covered. Here’s a quick breakdown of everything you need to know:

The Trial

Habré, dubbed ”Africa’s Pinochet” for his many human rights abuses, was ousted from the presidency in Chad in 1990 and has since lived out his comfortable exile in Senegal. Numerous attempts have been made to prosecute him, including four requests from Belgium to extradite him and Chad’s verdict of a death sentence in absentia.

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In July 2012, the International Court of Justice ordered Senegal either to prosecute the dictator or to extradite him. Senegal collaborated with the African Union to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers, where Habré’s trial finally began in July 2015.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Habré still maintains that he had no knowledge of the murders, torture, and rape he was found guilty of. When the trial first began, he called it “illegal and illegitimate” and staged by “African traitors” and “servants of America.”

Habré’s lawyer says he will appeal the guilty verdict.

The Reign Of Habré

Habré, now 73, ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. During that time, his government, and the infamous Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS) police force, killed up to 40,000 people and tortured and imprisoned hundreds of thousands. Habré also stole over $11 million from Chad’s treasury before going into exile. A 1992 Chadian commission of inquiry said Habré committed a “veritable genocide against the Chadian people.”

CREDIT: Jane Hahn/AP Photo, Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Jane Hahn/AP Photo, Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Habré rose to power after he was named defense minister of a Chadian transitional government in 1979 and launched a failed attack in 1980 to control the presidency before elections could be held. The interim president at the time, Goukouni Oueddei, sought to secure his power by signing an agreement with the prime minister of Libya, Mummar al-Qaddafi, to merge the two countries. But with support from the United State and France, Habré ousted Oueddei in 1982, fought a war with Libya, and eventually expelled Libyan forces.

Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, overthrew Habré in 1990.

The Chadian People

The survivors of Habré’s regime have been a powerful force in seeking justice for his crimes. For over twenty years, they have collected testimonials and lobbied political bodies to bring him to trial.

Over 4,000 victims registered as civil parties in the trial, and more than 90 of them testified.

“[This case is] not being driven by The Hague or some international diplomats or prosecutors. This is a case where really the victims are the architects of the effort,” said Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, during the push to bring Habré to trial two years ago. “And so, it’s a very empowering kind of process.”

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Souleymane Guengueng, one of the survivors, nearly died during his two years spent in four of Habré’s prisons. In the years following Habré’s exile, he created a victims’ association and gathered 792 witness accounts.

“In 1988, I was wrongfully accused and imprisoned in inhuman conditions,” Guengueng said during his testimony. “From the depths of my cell, from the depths of that madness, I took an oath before God that if I got out alive, I would fight for justice. I am convinced that if God allowed me to remain alive, it was to carry out this mission, in memory of those who died and disappeared. And most of all, to prevent this from happening again.”

Kaltouma Deffalah, a survivor of sexual slavery and rape, declared during the trial that she was “very proud and strong to be here today telling my story when this man, who was once the dictator, is sitting there silently.”

U.S. Support For Habré

Although the current U.S. administration condemns Habré’s dictatorship, the United States played an instrumental role in his rise to power.

CREDIT: Carley Petesch/AP Photo, Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Carley Petesch/AP Photo, Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

In the 1980s, the new Reagan administration perceived Libya as a terrorist threat under Soviet influence and was concerned about the proposed Libya-Chad merger. Reagan signed a secret presidential finding affirming that Qaddafi would never establish control over Chad.

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Then-CIA director William Casey and Secretary of State Alexander Haig supported working with Habré to “bloody Qaddafi’s nose” and the United States offered millions of dollars of supplies to Habré’s forces to overtake the presidential palace.

“Little to no attention was paid to the human rights issues at the time,” a former U.S. intelligence official who worked with Habré told Foreign Policy. “We wanted the Libyans out and Habré was the only reliable instrument at our disposal … [and] Habré was a good fighter, needed no training, and all we had to do was supply him with materiel.”

In 1982, Habré secured the presidency, consolidated power and silenced opposition.

The United States not only helped in training the DDS, but it also gave Habré $182 million in economic and military assistance, which helped Chad expel Libya forces.

“The CIA was so deeply involved in bringing Habré to power I can’t conceive they didn’t know what was going on,” Donald Norland, the U.S. ambassador to Chad from 1979 to 1981, told the Washington Post.

But this week, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that the United States “welcomes” the Extraordinary African Chambers’ verdict.

“As a country committed to the respect for human rights and the pursuit of justice, this is also an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad,” he wrote, without mentioning the U.S. role in Habré’s reign. “This ruling is a landmark in the global fight against impunity for atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Let this be a message to other perpetrators of mass atrocities, even those at the highest levels and including former heads of state.”

Why This Matters

The trial has enormous implications for human rights advocacy — and especially in the role that survivors can play in holding abusers accountable.

As Brody noted for Human Rights Watch, “For many years, as Souleymane and his colleagues hit one obstacle after another on their path to justice, the common refrain was that they would never succeed. But in a case which looked dead so many times, the victims made it clear that they would never go away. They pressed forward in Senegal and Belgium, at the U.N. Committee against Torture, at the African Union and, with the support of Belgium, at the International Court of Justice.”

But equally important, this is not the first time a U.S.-backed dictator has been put on trial for crimes during his reign. Rios Montt, the dictator of Guatemala from 1954 to 1986, received U.S. support during his rule, and is being tried for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, although the trial is currently suspended.

These cases are important lessons for U.S. foreign policy when it comes to human rights — and how military spending and intervention aren’t always the answers.

Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.