Courage of Sexual Violence Victims Transforms Trial of Chad’s Ex-President 

Victims of Hissene Habré during a press conference held prior to the former Chadian dictator's trial. Dakar, Senegal, July 17, 2013. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)

When Khadija Hassan Zidane stood up in front of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Dakar in October 2015 and accused Chad’s former President Hissene Habré of having raped her on four occasions, the atmosphere in the room became electrified. Habré, on trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture during his eight-year rule from 1982-90, was sitting just meters away from her in a leather armchair, clad from head to foot in a gleaming white djellaba and wearing dark glasses.

Khadija spoke in front of a court full of men, and the proceedings were being live-streamed. To the astonishment of many, Khadija looked Habré straight in the eye; at one point, she offered to pull up her skirt to show the court the scar she had from when he jabbed a pen into her leg when she resisted. No one knew in advance the full details of what Khadija was to allege.

Habré–as he had done on every other day of the grueling hearings before the EAC–sat without a flicker of emotion on his face. He had been arrested in 2013 after living for 25 years in exile in Dakar, and at first had to be dragged to the courtroom kicking and screaming. Khadija’s testimony was yet another example of how the voices of victims were integral in proving this case.

After a 10-month trial in Senegal, Habré was finally handed a life imprisonment sentence last week for his ultimate responsibility for the human rights abuses carried out in secret prisons and in rebellious communities by the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), a secret police service that he created when he seized power. In addition to his culpability in possibly hundreds of cases of torture, many of them recounted in excruciating detail to the court—including the dreaded arbatachar, when a prisoner was bound hand and foot behind their back, often with a car exhaust pipe inserted in their mouths—Habré was convicted of torture based on facts of sexual violence, and rape and sexual slavery as crimes against humanity.

This was a remarkable turnaround. In the original charges against Habré, these were not listed as specific crimes. This motivated members of civil society to write an open letter to the court criticizing the lack of attention to sexual violence, but it was only because of the testimony of Khadija and a number of other women that the scale of the problem during Habré’s rule came to light. After hearing their testimony, a team from the sexual violence program at the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, led an effort to submit an amicus brief to the EAC in late December 2015. The brief requested a revision of charges to account for the sexual violence evidence presented during the trial, and offered the judges multiple options for doing so under both their own statute and customary international law. The brief was supported by a number of prominent lawyers, including Patricia Sellars and Justice Richard Goldstone. Although the presiding judges did not say publicly that they had incorporated the brief into their judgement, they seem to have been sufficiently convinced by the testimony of the women and the importance of the issue to retroactively modify the charges.

The excitement surrounding the convictions on sexual violence charges has led to speculation as to whether or not the model of the EAC—a so-called hybrid court set up by the African Union within the existing Senegalese justice system with a fixed one-off mandate—could be repeated to convict other powerful leaders of these charges. The court proved to be relatively cheap and effective, costing $9.5m and taking 10 months—much less than other cases brought before bodies such as the International Criminal Court. It was the first time the courts of one African country were used to try the former leader of another African country, and has great symbolic value, with Chadian lawyers representing Chadian victims on African soil. Habré’s conviction was greeted with unbridled joy by the hundreds of victims and their supporters who had come to Senegal to witness the trial and delivered a powerful message to other erring leaders that even after 25 years in exile, a former president can still be held accountable for his or her actions.

However, the optimism for an immediate repeat may be short-lived. There are few former or current leaders who are as isolated as Habré was. For most of his 25 years in exile, he lived in the upscale Dakar suburb of Ouakam under the informal protection of Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, who repeatedly rebuffed attempts to extradite or try him in Senegal. When Senegal elected Macky Sall president in 2012, that protection fell away. In addition, the civil society case against Habré was given immense amounts of help, including by Human Rights Watch and the inimitable Reed Brody, who has been advising and supporting civil parties in negotiating the complexities of international law for more than 16 years.

Despite its undeniable success, the EAC has left many unanswered questions. Because of Habré’s rejection of the court’s authority from day one—he never answered a question put to him by the judges—the real workings of the DDS remain a mystery. Former Habré lieutenants—such as the head of the DDS Saleh Younous and one of the most feared torturers Mahamat Djibrine— were hastily jailed in Chad just before the EAC opened, and several key figures from Habré’s time refused to travel to Dakar to testify. Habré’s refusal to speak to his court-appointed defense team means that the testimonies of the various witnesses went unchallenged. Exactly how many people died in his secret prisons may never be known.

The trial’s focus on victims’ experiences, along with the trial’s location on African soil, will surely influence the design of future human rights abuse cases. It has shown the world how devastating the impact of sexual violence is, and how important it is to have these crimes at the heart of future prosecutions. For Habré’s victims—figures such as Souleymane Guengueng and Clement Abaifouta who spearheaded the search for justice—the long, hard work of the trial is over. A dictator has been brought to justice.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist and author of Africa’s New Oil. Follow @ChadCeleste