When President Obama visits Senegal this week, he will have the opportunity to show his support for a bold initiative to bring to justice the dictator responsible for torturing me and thousands of my countrymen.
On Dec. 1, 1990, when Hissen Habre’s rule in Chad came to an end and he fled to Senegal, I emerged from almost three years of mistreatment in detention for a crime I did not commit — being a rebel fighter against Habre. My body was weak and my bones were frail, but my resolve to seek justice was strong.
For the next 22 years, despite betrayals and danger, my fellow victims and I have fought on, gathering testimony and evidence against Habre. Based on the case we filed in Senegal in 2000, a judge there indicted Habre that year on charges of torture, crimes against humanity and barbaric acts. But the authorities threw up one roadblock after another. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa decried the “interminable legal and political soap opera” to which we were subjected, and many survivors of Habre’s torture chambers have since died.
Threats from Habre henchmen who remain in high positions in Chad eventually forced me into exile. Our lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, was severely injured in 2001 when one of Habre’s officials, by then a police chief, ordered a grenade thrown at her.
Last year, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Senegal to prosecute Habre “without further delay” or to extradite him. Finally, in February, the government of Senegalese President Macky Sall joined forces with the African Union to create a tribunal with Senegalese and other African judges to prosecute Habre and those most responsible for the crimes committed in Chad during his rule.
Habre stands accused of using his all-powerful political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate, or DDS, to carry out thousands of political killings and systematic torture. The files of the DDS, unearthed by Human Rights Watch in 2001, reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations such as myself.
Sadly, the United States supported Habre during his rule, seeing him as a bulwark against Libya’s Moammar Kadafi. During the Reagan administration, the CIA gave covert support to help Habre take power in 1982, and Washington then provided him with massive military aid, even as he turned my country into a police state. The United States also used a clandestine base in Chad to organize captured Libyan soldiers into a force to fight against their former leader.
However, now there is progress. Since Obama took office, his administration has backed our quest. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that after 20 years, “the victims deserve justice and their day in court” and urged Senegal to take “concrete steps” to prosecute Habre. And after Sall’s election in 2012, Senegal took steps to create the tribunal. This month, the court’s prosecutor made his first visit to Chad, giving immense hope that at last justice was at hand.
The United States in December pledged $1 million toward the trial but has not yet delivered on its promise. Obama’s visit to Senegal — a country he chose because of its renewed attachment to the rule of law — would be an opportune moment to present the U.S. contribution and provides an excellent platform to express U.S. support for Senegal’s pioneering efforts and his hope that our long struggle for justice will be delayed no more.
Habre’s trial would mark the first time in modern history that the courts of one country tried the leader of another for alleged grave crimes under international law.
I’ve heard many African leaders argue that Africa is unfairly targeted by international courts. The real problem, however, is a failure to bring to justice some African leaders for their crimes against humanity. If it is fair and transparent, Habre’s trial would not only redress the crimes visited on me and my colleagues, it would strike a blow against the cycle of impunity that has debilitated my continent.
Souleymane Guengueng, founder of the Assn. of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habre’s Regime, lives in exile in New York.