Reed Brody is a counsel and spokesman for Human Rights Watch, and has worked for over 15 years alongside the victims of former chadian dictator Hissène Habré.
Often called the “dictator hunter”, he is known for his commitment to bring the world’s dictator to justice, such as Augusto Pinochet or Baby Doc Duvalier.
Hissène Habré‘s trial he says is the result of years of determination of the regime’s victims.
“This trial is the first time in history, anywhere in the world, that the courts of one country, Senegal, are going to prosecute the leader of another country, Chad, for alleged human rights crimes. It’s the first time that the African Union has established a court. It’s the first time in Africa, anywhere, that the courts of one country try crimes committed in another country. And all of this is happening because of 25 years of mobilisation by Hissène Habré‘s victims, who never gave up.Who were able to surmount obstacle after obstacle, and who have shown by their tenacity and their perseverance, that it’s possible, for simple people. and handicapped people, widows, orphans, to actually mobilise to bring a dictator to justice. And I think that has the power to capture the imagination of victims, of human rights organisations, of people seeking justice around the world.
The victims in the Hissène Habré case were inspired by what the victims of the chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had done. And already the campaign of Hissène Habré‘s victims is inspiring other people around Africa, who are saying we can do this too! There may be in Zimbabwe, in Gambia, in Ethiopia. They’re looking at this case and thinking “we can do that”.
The most important part is yet to come. Which is going to be the trial itself. And at that trial what we want to see is that the victims’ voice is seen and heard. And it will be. In that courtroom, the victims who have been the architects and the protagonists of this case will be looking at Hissène Habré in the face, if he shows up. And asking: “Why was I thrown in prison, why was my family killed ?”
The chadian lawyers who have accompanied the victims for the last decades, people like Jacqueline Moudeina who almost paid with her life her engagement with the victims, is going to be the lawyer for the victims, asking that the court pose questions to Hissène Habré.
What we want to see is that the best evidence is presented. That the verdict is based on accepted facts. And in a larger sense the trial shows that it’s possible for victims to bring a dictator to justice and that an african court can provide justice for crimes committed against african victims.
Whether or not Hissène Habré comes to court, whether or not he answers questions, this trial is going to go forward. And I think that if Habré doesn’t speak, people are going to draw the conclusions. Obviously the prosecutor still has to prove his case. if not the burden of Hissène Habré, to disprove the charges, it’s the burden of the prosecutor and the victims to prove the charges But also if Hissène Habré does not participate, people are going to look and compare the courage of his victims, who in a country where justice is not the norm, have fought for 25 years to get to court, and the cowardice of somebody who’s afraid to look them in the eye, who’s afraid to engage in a debate with them.
“A lot of people in the current tchadian government served under Hissène Habre including president Idriss Deby”
When we started working with the victims over 15 years ago, one of the victims said to Human Rights Watch, “since when has justice come all the way to Chad ?” And I think they have brought justice to Chad, and they’ve brought it to Senegal, and they’ve brought it to an african tribunal. And this is a case that has a much greater impact than a case that is brought by a prosecutor in the Hague, who comes down, and decides a prosecutoral strategy based on a limited case.
Here, it’s the victims who have written the story of this case. Who have been really truly the architects. Who said “no you have to take into account the crimes committed against this ethnic group and that ethnic group, against the north, and the south”. And so this is a story that is being written by the victims. And as Hissène Habré tries to make himself out to be the victim, he has in front of him real victims! . People who were tortured, people who spent years in jail, people who lost loved ones, and who have stood up, and demanded justice
A lot of people in the current tchadian government served under Hissène Habré including president Idriss Deby who was Hissène Habré’s military chief during one of the particularly bloody periods of Habré’s repression. But it’s Hissène Habré on trial here. We’d like to see the truth come out, but this trial is a trial of Hissène Habré, and we’re expecting that the government of Chad will collaborate.
“It’s important that we assign historic responsibility to the United States in particular and to France”
Trials like this also give us important historical lessons. Hissène Habré was brought to power by Ronald Reagan and the United States. He was supported by the United States and France throughout his regime, even as he continued to turn the country into a police state and create an arpichelago of prisons.
I think it’s important that we assign historic responsibility to the United States in particular and to France. At the same time, it’s welcome that the Obama administration in particular has stepped up and worked very hard to make this trial happen. And in a sense, it doesn’t make up for what happened in the past, but it’s a way of getting the United States on the right side of justice.