Habré trial – Six takeaways for the fight against impunity

2015/07/20. Hissene Habre Trial Kicks Off in Dakar, Senegal.

Habré resists being brought to the Senegal court to face trial © Aliou Mbaye/Newscom

On 30 May 2016, the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Senegal convicted Chad’s former president Hissène Habré of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture committed during his 1982-1990 rule. Habré was sentenced to life in prison.  Here are six extraordinary facts about the trial.

Justice on behalf of Africa

The Habré trial marked the first time that a former head of state was convicted for international crimes by a court of another country. Pressure from Belgium and the UN’s International Court of Justice led Senegal to finally arrest Habré in 2013 following years of delay on the establishment of the African Union-backed EAC.

Senegal’s eventual response signifies a pivotal moment for justice in Africa and sends an important message to all abusive regimes that their acts will not go unpunished.

“Today Africa has won. We say thank you to Senegal and to Africa for judging Africa. We are proud that this trial took place on African soil,” said Clement Abeifouta, president of a Habré survivors association.

Core international crimes: a global concern

Habré’s trial was the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa. What does ‘universal jurisdiction’ mean for this case?

A domestic court like the EAC in Senegal was able to try crimes committed in Chad because their impact could be felt across borders. Victims lodging complaints in Senegal in 2000 triggered the process, which the African Union (AU) supported in the interest of “African Justice.”

Senegal had to amend its laws to accommodate this truly universal responsibility to provide justice.

Civil society call joins victims’ voices

That Habré’s case proceeded to trial is in large part a testament to civil society efforts. Torture survivors like Souleymane Guengueng were instrumental in gathering evidence, working for years with lawyers and international NGOs like the Chadian Association of Victims of Crimes and Political Repression (AVCRP) and the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH) to ensure Habré’s prosecution.

“For us, this is a victory, because who could believe that Habré, who was seen like an untouchable God in Chad, could be judged,” noted Guengueng.


According to the New York Times, with the help of NGOs including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Federation for Human Rights, mass atrocity victims’ voices have never resonated more than they did at Habré’s trial. Their voices demonstrate the liberating potential of justice.

Habré not above the law, women and girls not beneath it

Justice caught up with the former president in 2000 when a group of Chadian survivors filed complaints in Senegal while exiled Chadians did the same in Belgium.

Habré was ultimately found guilty not only of crimes like sexual slavery perpetrated by security forces under his control, but also of personally raping Khadija Hassan Zidane on several occasions – a first for a former head of state.


Victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré celebrate his conviction by an African Union-backed court in Senegal on 30 May 2016. © Ruth McLean

HRW’s lawyer Reed Brody, who worked on the case for 15 years, stated that Habré’s sentencing is a sign that no leader is above the law and that no woman or girl is beneath it.

Reparations: a global responsibility

The chief EAC judge stated that should Habré be found guilty, hearings would take place to determine compensation for victims. Reparations based on EAC and ICC convictions are similarly funded: by the guilty party or alternatively by a victims’ fund of voluntary contributions from foreign governments, international organizations, and NGOs.


Demonstration of widows of victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré in the Chadian capital N’Djamena in 2005.© 2005 Stephanie Hancock/Human Rights Watch

Earlier, Chad had itself promised to compensate survivors and victims’ families. With the 2015 conviction in Chad of members of Habré’s security forces, this promise materialized in a actual order for 7,000 victims, however the disbursement of domestic reparations are still outstanding over a year later.

African justice is global justice

Within Africa, the verdict could have far-reaching implications. The AU has encouraged its members to adopt laws like those that enabled Habré’s trial in Senegal as well as to establish a network of national prosecutors working on war crimes cases, which has already led to investigations in South Africa and Senegal.

“It demonstrates that when there is enough political will, states can work together effectively to end impunity in even the most entrenched situations,” said Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.

The trial offers hope that through collective efforts, victims, civil society and states can deliver comprehensive justice based on the same core principles as those enshrined in the ICC’s Rome Statute.


American human rights lawyer Reed Brody and torture survivor Souleymane Guengueng. ©Frédéric Stucin

The same synergy, which has characterized the ICC since its establishment, may yet take the Court itself and states within the Rome Statute system to new heights in the fight against impunity.

Background: “Facing Justice” (Human Rights Watch)

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