Chad’s Habre Gets Life in Prison

Chad’s Habre Gets Life in Prison

Hissene Habre ran the African nation of Chad for about 8 years in the 1980s. He seized power from Goukouni Oueddi, a fellow rebel who had actually won an election. During his reign of terror, at least 40,000 people were killed for political reasons, and another 200,000 were tortured and imprisoned. Any ethnic group seen as being opposed to Habre were targeted: the Sara in 1984, the Hadjerai in 1987 and Chadian Arabs and the Zaghawa in 1989-90. Yesterday, he was sentenced to life in prison after a trial in Senegal. It is a small piece of justice for a continent starving for more.

After being deposed by current President Idriss Deby, Mr. Habre went into exile in Senegal. The BBC said,

First, a Senegalese court refused to put him on trial, saying it did not have jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed in Chad.

His victims then turned to Belgium and, after a four-year investigation, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005 as the country’s universal law allows its courts to prosecute human rights offences committed anywhere in the world.

The Senegalese authorities responded by putting Habre under house arrest, but there have since been years of wrangling about what do with him.

The government of former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade changed its position on whether to try him several times, its key concern being about the funding of such a trial.

Four extradition requests from Belgium were denied and the African Union (AU) urged Senegal to prosecute Habre “on behalf of Africa”.

Mr Wade agreed to do so and by 2008 the country’s constitution was amended to allow the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Senegal even if they were committed outside the country.

The story is a pathetic one. This journal has long argued that heads of state or government are responsible for mass murders and torture that occur while they are in office, and they must be punished either for giving the order or for not stopping it. Moreover, summary execution in the field is the prefered punishment because their monstrous behavior puts them beyond the pale of legality by using the apparatus of the state (the institution responsible for justice) for injustice. Trials of political leaders for the policy of murder merely pollutes the legal system.

Mr. Habre, however, fell into the hands of the Senegalese and not the Kensington Review. So, he was given a trial and has the right to appeal. He may also be pardoned by a future Senegalese president or otherwise have his sentence commuted. Still, life in prison might just be acceptable if it means life in prison — his whole life in an actual prison, not part of his life under house arrest.

This trial, however, does mark progress in one important way. An African leader was tried in Africa by Africans. It’s a far better result than an African leader being tried by Europeans, for historical reasons if nothing else. There are dozens of other African leaders who need to be tried if summary execution is not accepted there. For that matter, there are numerous Asian, European and American (North and South) leaders and ex-leaders who should probably face trial.

That won’t happen anytime soon, but the example of Mr. Habre brings forward the day when all dictators must answer to their people, all people for their crimes.