Three years ago, former Chadian president Hissène Habré was found guilty of rape sexual slavery and ordering the killings of 40,000 people during his time as president. The trial was held in Senegal under an agreement between Senegal and the African Union. It was remarkable for many different reasons. British freelance journalist Celeste Hicks was the BBC’s correspondent in Chad. She attended the trial and later wrote a book, The Trial of Hissène Habré: How the People of Chad Brought a Tyrant to Justice. As part of our #MyJustice series, Justice Hub: asked Celeste Hicks why she wrote it:
Celeste Hicks: Really simply it was just an amazing story from start to finish. As a BBC correspondent in Chad in 2008, I met Reed Brody and I worked with some people from the Human Rights Watch. He was trying to prosecute the former Chadian president Hissène Habré, who was living in exile in Dakar, Senegal. And back then it really seemed quite hopeless. Reed would send me emails saying, “we’re having another press conference, can you come to it?”. And I would go, and I would just think “I don’t know how these people would ever be going to get justice”.
And then fast forward a few years to 2014, and Reed emailed me again and said, “oh actually the Habré trial is going to take place, it’s going to happen in Dakar”. And I thought I’ve done a lot of stories about African court cases which are opened, adjourned and then go nowhere. So, is it really worth me going to Dakar to follow this story? It’s probably not going to happen, the case is going to get adjourned. But Reed said “It’s going to happen”, so I went on the faith that Reed had a good feeling for this.
Justice Hub: What did you experience in the court where Hissène Habré was tried?
The first day in the court was incredible. Hissène Habré was carried into the court by a team of Senegalese security agents who were wearing masks and military fatigues, and they basically pinned him down on a chair and he sat there shouting, denouncing the colonialists and all his supporters were cheering and clapping giving victory signs, and he was waving his prayer beads around. It was just an incredible scene. But I still thought this is just going to get adjourned and the judge is going to call it a day and somehow Habré will find some legal mechanism to get out of this. And actually he didn’t, and the trial started. And what followed was three months of incredible testimony from the witnesses, most of whom were victims of Habré. Either people who had been tortured directly or people who lost family members or disappeared family members and it was just such a raw emotion of hands-on experience of watching those people testify.
As it went on, I realized something was happening and I realized it was quite a good chance there was going to be a verdict and the trial was going to get to a conclusion and I just found myself thinking “you know what? I don’t want to write another book”. It would be the second book I’d have written. My first book was fine – I enjoyed it. But it was such a labour of love and it was so minimal in terms of the amount of financial reward I got for it, I didn’t want to down that avenue. But in the end this story was so powerful. I just thought I have unique access to this, I have known this story for ten years, I have worked with Reed all these years and I’ve met the victims numerous times in Chad and know this story and I know I can do it justice.
Justice Hub: You say that you met victims and they went to testify in court themselves. What struck you about them being in court? Was it different, was it what you expected to hear?
Celeste Hicks: I knew quite a lot of the stories. But I would say what was really striking about it was just the rawness of the emotion of the interaction. It was people I had met in dusty offices in N’Djamena where the electricity or internet was down, and they were just ordinary people from Chad. And then suddenly they were sitting in this austere courthouse in Dakar being listened to by prosecutors from across Africa, so suddenly being elevated to such an important status. But they didn´t lose their normality, they still stood up and said the same stories they had been saying all along. But with a lot of the Chadian victims, once they got up and they started talking, and they realized that people were listening and taking them seriously, it became extremely moving to watch them. And particularly as Hissène Habré was sitting just about five meters away from them in the courtroom so the were directly addressing the perpetrator.
It wasn’t like what I have seen of the International Criminal Court via livestream, where it’s a bunch of lawyers questioning the accusers and the witness is behind a screen and there’s not that raw emotion. It was almost like watching a theatre performance, with these people that were so intimately connected, because he had been the torturer and been responsible for ordering the torture and they had been people who had suffered there, and they were almost working that out between them in front of everybody and it was just really powerful.
Justice Hub: The trial meant a huge amount for the victims. But does it have a bigger meaning, that you explored in the book?
Celeste Hicks: I think that it does. The main thing that came from it was that the African Union is capable of organizing a trial to try historic cases of human rights abuses. There’s been such a history of difficult relations particularly due to the ICC’s attempts to prosecute presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Kenyatta of Kenya. And there’s been a sense that the African Union and some African presidents have protected each other and refused to let anybody investigate cases of human rights abuses. But this trial showed that the African Union can. Of course, there’s a caveat attached to that, which is that it depends on the political circumstances. And obviously Habré had been out of power for a long time, so there was a sense that it was politically acceptable to try him. But the African Union did set this trial up and followed it through, and at the end of it they had a discussion about what can we do next, are there any other cases that we can set up? Up until now, that’s not happening, but it’s definitely a feeling that this was proof that Africa could try cases of human rights abuses if it wants to.
Justice Hub: Could we see maybe another African former dictator on trial?
Celeste Hicks: When I was researching the book I asked this question “who else could we go after?” and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, now in Zimbabwe, was one of the obvious ones who seem to be “a dictator waiting in the wings”, as Reed Brody puts it. Somebody who’s been out of power for a long time who’s enjoying the protection of another head of state, who, if that head of state falls, their protection could evaporate – and that’s exactly what happened with Habré. He was being protected by former Senegalese president Wade and then when Wade went he had no protection. The same thing could happen in Zimbabwe. I haven’t seen any definite moves towards that at the moment but it’s possible.
The other big case that could get off the ground is that against Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia, who’s currently in Equatorial Guinea being protected by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. It could be that at some point it becomes untenable for Obiang to continue protecting him. It could be costly and reputationly difficult for him to continue protecting him. We could see Jammeh’s protection evaporating. So I’m interested to see what happens there.