Hissene Habre
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Hissene Habre: Trial of a Dictator

Harrowing insight into the rise and fall of one of the world’s most cruel dictators, former Chadian President Habre.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

On May 30, 2016, former Chadian President Hissene Habre was convicted for crimes against humanity. This was the culmination of a 17-year campaign for justice organised by a small group of lawyers, who made it their mission to see Habre stand trial, and without whom it might not have happened.

“There was a group of us who said that we were never going to give up. We were going to fight this until Hissene Habre died or was brought to court,” says activist Reed Brody, nicknamed “the dictator hunter”.

Brody investigated Habre’s dreaded political police force, the DDS, the Directorate of Documentation and Security, which was responsible for stamping out those who allegedly opposed his regime. It is estimated that 40,000 people were killed and another 200,000 tortured during Habre’s eight-year rule.

Habre, 74, did not speak a single word during the eight months of his trial, not looking once at the hundreds of victims who gave their testimonies day after day – the stubborn silence of a dictator, denying the legitimacy of the court.

But what turned Habre into such a cruel dictator? And how did he get away with it for so long?

Revolutionary and warlord

In 1975, a former political science student at the elite French school, Sciences-Po Paris, Habre led a rebellion against the Chadian government, which he considered to be overly influenced by France. This was the beginning of Habre’s political career.

Chad, a former French colony, is landlocked by six other countries, most notably Libya in the north, Sudan to the east and Niger to the west. Some claim it is the messy decolonisation that was the fuel beneath the fire that destroyed much of the nation.

From the desert region of Tibesti, nestled between Libya and Niger, in 1974 Habre rallied the local populations with his nationalistic rhetoric, calling for a revolution.

“He wore a Cuban cap that made him look like one of Castro’s revolutionaries. He even had Ray-Bans, the in-fashion sunglasses, a very well-fitting uniform with a colt by his side to remind people that he was first and foremost a warlord … He knew that wars were also won by impressions,” says historian Jean-Pierre Bat. 

Habre wore a Cuban cap, Ray-Bans and a colt by his side, reminiscent of Cuba's revolutionaries, to remind people of his position as warlord. [Al Jazeera]
Habre wore a Cuban cap, Ray-Bans and a colt by his side, reminiscent of Cuba’s revolutionaries, to remind people of his position as warlord. [Al Jazeera]

In order to further his image as a “warlord”, Habre also carried out a series of kidnappings, targeting foreign personalities, elevating his visibility on an international scale. The first French hostage was archaeologist Francoise Claustre, who was kept prisoner in the Tibesti desert for 33 months. 

It was only when France intervened with the help of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi that Claustre was released. This would signal the beginning of a long-term, bloody conflict between Habre and Gaddafi.

Habre’s rise to power

After seizing power in 1982, Habre received support from France and the United States, who saw him as a bulwark against Gaddafi’s regime in Libya – a significant turn in the tide for the ambitious Chadian leader.

Gaddafi was an equally ambitious revolutionary, but more powerful due to the oil money he possessed. In the name of his Pan-African dream, he occupied a strip of land in Aouzou bordering Libya and launched a rebellion against Habre.

Gaddafi threatened the West’s interests not only in Chad but globally, openly supporting revolutionary movements and financing international terrorism. The West extended support to Habre at any cost.

“The Americans had decided that they were going to support Hissene Habre. The Americans didn’t have an interest in Chad per se, but they had very strong feelings about reining in the ambitions of Colonel Gaddafi. What we did was assess what Chad needed. The Chadian soldiers were point and shoot, it had to be pretty simple,” says Charles Duelfer of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Military Policy from 1982 to 1990. 

The US government armed Habre’s regime, but France was hesitant to do so, with the socialist President Francois Mitterrand leaning towards a new African policy with less intervention. Mitterrand opened discussions with Libya’s leader. 

Muammar Gaddafi agrees to former French President Francois Mitterrand's terms to pull out of Chad in 1984 [Al Jazeera]
Muammar Gaddafi agrees to former French President Francois Mitterrand’s terms to pull out of Chad in 1984 [Al Jazeera]

“My colleagues and I in Washington were aware of the fact that some elements of the French government were tempted to try to work with Gaddafi. And our message to the French would be: if you dine with the devil, use a long spoon,” says Chester Crocker, secretary of state of African Affairs from 1981 to 1989.

While Mitterrand and Gaddafi signed the deal under which Gaddafi agreed not to cross the 16th parallel, a symbolic boundary that separated the pro-Libyan troops and the regime of Habre, Habre himself was climbing the power ranks.

Chad’s Black September

Soon after, his regime carried out their first massacres, ambushing an opposing armed rebel group in the south, known as the Codos. The location of the massacre – an isolated farm – was used in the trial against Habre.

“They told us that the farm was full of people. The soldiers opened fire on everyone who was moving. The farmyard was carpeted with dead bodies,” says Jaqueline Moudeina, a lawyer for the prosecution in the Habre trial in reference to the Codos massacre.

“The bodies were buried all over the place here. There are some people who say that the farm is only bodies.”

The farm is one of the symbols of the massacres in the south during a period that became known as Black September in 1984, and more than 30 years later the people of Chad have still not forgotten the violence of the Habre regime against the civilian population.

They told us that the farm was full of people. The soldiers opened fire on everyone who was moving. The farmyard was carpeted with dead bodies.

by Jaqueline Moudeina, a lawyer for the prosecution in the Habre trial

While Habre’s army was wiping out any dissent in the south of Chad, the world’s attention was turned to the north because Gaddafi had violated the pact he had made with France. The pro-Libyan troops had crossed the symbolic border of the 16th parallel and were advancing on Chad’s capital city.

Habre finally got what he wanted – the support of the French army. Mitterrand succeeded in persuading Gaddafi to pull his troops out of Chad, and France declared its support for Chad and Habre.

“From the moment that Hissene Habre became a strategic leader in a strategic country, we had a tendency to take a laissez-faire attitude … So nobody watched what he was doing in his country from the moment they said to him, ‘We simply ask for you to keep your country going, do what you want’. How can you think that he would do anything other than abuse his power?” says Roland Dumas, former French minister of foreign affairs.

Habre had become known as the “lion” of the National Union for Independence and Revolution, his political party. With his strength, and Gaddafi’s resurgence, came even more abuse. Thousands of Chadians were arrested and were victim to the cruelty of his regime. 

“When we arrested people we took them directly, we had to interrogate them. The interrogations were violent and the people cried … the sessions were unbearable … inhumane, indeed,” says Bandjim Bandjoum, a former DDS agent.

The Toyota War: Gaddafi, Habre and the superpowers

By the mid-1980s, Gaddafi had still not withdrawn his troops from northern Chad. He did not fulfil the agreement that he had made with Mitterrand and tensions were rising between France and Libya.

Near Wadi Doum, the Libyans built a runway to channel weapons and conduct a fresh attack on Chad. France showed its seriousness in supporting Chad through Operation Epervier (Operation Sparrowhawk), bombarding the aerodrome in northern Chad as a warning to Gaddafi and his advancing forces.

The French and the Americans were now in the same position: they had to clamp down on the Libyan advance that threatened stability in the region. With support from the US and France, Habre was able to take back Wadi Doum in 1987 after the “Toyota War”, so named because of the Chadian forces’ use of Toyota pick-ups during the conflict.

“Hissene Habre in the end, destroyed the Libyan armoured corps and killed thousands of Libyan troops. That would not have happened if there had not been effective French and American cooperation. I hope your viewers appreciate what was accomplished militarily by Chadians to defend themselves and their country. Anyway it led to an invitation to the White House to Hissene Habre,” says Chester Crocker.

‘It was a death chamber’

After seven years in power Habre became obsessed with those he considered “internal enemies” in Chad, especially after Idriss Deby, his former chief of state, led a rebellion against him in 1989.

From that point onwards, anyone with the same ethnic background as Deby, the Zaghawa, became a target.

In N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, they were held in a prison called “the Piscine”, or swimming pool, located in Habre’s own backyard. It became a symbol of oppression as the country was plunged into a time of fear.

“We called it ‘the Piscine’ because it really used to be a swimming pool, used by the French officers during colonisation. When Habre came to power, he transformed the pool. He created a subfloor underneath, it was like a hole, and underneath were the cells: length, 3.13m, width, 3.02m, height, 4.70m, with tiny windows that didn’t let in enough air for the prisoners. It was a death chamber,” says Mahamat Hassan Abakar, president of the investigating committee into Habre’s crimes.

It is estimated that 200,000 people were tortured during Habre's regime [Al Jazeera]
It is estimated that 200,000 people were tortured during Habre’s regime [Al Jazeera]

US, France and the fall of a dictator

During the same period, two terror attacks unsettled Habre’s ally, the United States: Pan Am flight 103 exploded in mid-flight over Lockerbie, in Scotland; and a French UTA plane exploded in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

Both attacks bore the hallmarks of Colonel Gaddafi and the US decided that the Libyan leader needed to be eliminated.

It was a CIA operation, a covert operation. The purpose was to infiltrate Libya with Libyan people who could attack Libyan facilities.

by Hank Cohen, State Department, Intelligence Services, 1980-1984

Habre found himself in the position of needing to return the favour and he opened his country to US forces, allowing them to pursue their objective. Just a few kilometres from N’Djamena, the CIA had secret camps where they trained former Libyan prisoners.

“That’s Reagan, that’s Reagan all over. Habre took 2,000-3,000 prisoners in the war against Gaddafi. That’s 2,000-3,000 prisoners in camps and they gave almost all of them over to the Americans and … they made a sort of heavily armed force to one day destroy Gaddafi. The Americans didn’t talk about it with us at all,” says Claude Silberzahn, director of France’s external security agency between 1989 and 1993.

France was not ready to step down, and had already selected the man to replace Habre: Idriss Deby, who had taken refuge in Sudan.

When Deby’s troops entered N’Djamena, this time the French military did not intervene.

Following the collapse of his regime, Habre escaped to Senegal with $11m, where he lived as a free man for 23 years, despite having an international arrest warrant out on him.

Deby appointed magistrate Abakar to head of a commission into crimes committed by the Habre regime. It collected witness statements from victims and discovered a number of  mass graves. Many of the victims still suffer the traumatic effects of life as a prisoner under Habre’s regime. They also hold more than the dictator responsible for the events in Chad during his reign.

“Whether it’s France or the United States, they gave Habre the means to rule and it’s their responsibility. I believe that Hissene Habre will be judged and condemned, but we will need to face the powers that contributed, materially, financially and with personnel to the killing of Africans. They need to be ready. I think they will meet us on their way,” says Clement Aboufaita, a former prisoner of the Habre regime.

Habre was convicted on May 30, 2016, by the Special African Tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and rape. Habre’s lawyers have launched an appeal against the tribunal’s verdict. 

Hissene Habre did not speak a single word during his eight-month trial, never looking at the hundreds of victims that gave their testimonies [Al Jazeera]