By Aida Grovestins
Over the past 15 years, Jacqueline Moudeina, a prominent Chadian human rights lawyer, has been pursuing justice for the survivors of former Chadian President Hissène Habré’s regime of terror. The trial opened on 20 July 2015, before the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar, Senegal. This week, the second phase of the process started, with the closing arguments of the prosecution and the victims’ and defence lawyers. Moudeina fearlessly leads the collective of lawyers of the victims of Habré’s régime. Habré has been accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture during his reign from 1982 till 1990.
“From 1998, I have been working with survivors of Habré’s regime and begun collecting evidence on his atrocities. In 2000, we reached out to HRW (Human Rights Watch) - inspired by the ‘Pinochet case’ - to help build the factual and legal case against him and our campaign for justice. In 2000, I filed a case against Habré in Senegal, where he was living in luxury, and against his security agents in the Chadian courts.
“Since the start of the process against Hissène Habré on 20 July 2015, 98 victims and witnesses have testified in the courthouse in Dakar, in the presence of Habré. They have told harrowing stories of random arrests, torture and rape. The trial has been both hard and a relief for the victims. Hard because by telling about what happened to them, they had to relive the nightmare that they went through in the prisons. Relieved because finally they could tell their story in front of a judge. Habré is sitting every day in the courtroom without opening his mouth. For the victims it is essential that he is present, that he hears them. I see his silence as weakness. He says he is innocent, but he can only prove it by talking.
“We have a solid case against Habré and his security agents. We were able to get into the archives of the Directorate of Documentation and Security, Habré’s political police. These records give us a lot information. Together with HRW, we recovered files that reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. Among these documents were copies of 1,265 direct communications to Habré from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees. The judges made four trips to Chad. It allowed them to conduct their own investigations, questioning thousands of direct and indirect victims.
Not an easy road
“It wasn’t an easy road to the start of the trial. There were death threats and intimidations. I learned to live with it without fear. It has made me more obstinate. The government of Chad protects no one. If you are committed, you do what you have to do. If you lose your life, too bad for you. Bringing a former dictator to justice is no easy task, and it is fraught with danger. Some of the former perpetrators continue to haunt us with daily taunts and threats. I survived two attacks on my life. The first on 11 June 2001, when a grenade was thrown at my feet during a demonstration that I led in Ndjamena, Chad’s capital. The order was given by one of Habré’s former prison guards, who now commanded all police units in the current government.
“I had four operations on my right leg. It took me 15 months to recover, and there are still a lot of grenade parts in my body. But that does not prevent me from continuing because there is a group that counts on me. And that leads me to move forward. Even if I do not succeed, there will be another person who will continue my work, and he or she will succeed.“
“This trial is not only to bring justice to the former prisoners, widows and orphans of Hissène Habré’s regime. We want to bring reconciliation in Chad for a lasting peace.
Orphaned at an early age
“I am a person who does not like injustice. I lost my father and mother at a very young age. I did not experience a real childhood while growing up. I had a pretty hard life. I realised from an early age that there is injustice in the world and that we must fight it. As long as human rights violations remain unpunished, they will continue. I gave a sense to my life by fighting injustice.
“When I got my first university degree, Habré became prime minister and caused a war. Suddenly we couldn’t study anymore because the universities closed. When he became president, my husband, who was a journalist and highly critical of the government, and I went to live in exile in Congo-Brazzaville. I started studying law to be able to defend those without a voice. We created a branch of the Chadian human rights organization in Brazzaville. I think that the countless orphans of the regime of Habré live the same drama as I have. Having had the opportunity to study, to get where I am, I lend my voice to those people to be able to fight for their rights.
A turning point
“Habré’s trial contains a great educational message. It says to all the torturers and dictators in the world that their past can catch up with them. And to all victims who suffer human rights violations, it is possible to go to a jurisdiction for justice to be done. And that's the key importance because in the Habré case, the victims have sought justice. It was not a judicial authority which sought to settle this case in which the victims have joined. No. It’s the opposite. Herein lies a very strong message.
“The Habré trial has generated and inspired other Africans. A strong delegation from Guinea came to follow the trial, headed by the president of the High Courts of Justice. Parliamentarians from other African countries have come to the courthouse as well. This process is a turning point. It is a basic fight against impunity in Africa. And Africa will be better. So the issue is not just Chad. It is African.
Final thrust for justice
“This week, I argued in the courtroom that Hissène Habré was aware of everything that happened in Chad, that he was informed daily by the political police, the DDS, of what was happening in the country and in the 8 secret prisons, including the one in the presidential palace. I showed how his secret police's intelligence network worked. In the centre, Habré’s name appears and around him his whole system of repression, including the DDS, which were the political police and the main instrument of repression of the regime.
"Less than a year in power, Habré, consumed by paranoia, then creates the famous DDS, whose very mention still evokes terror. The president watched over its repressive machinery. How can he not know that people are dying en masse? The only thing that is stored in the memory of the victims and eyewitnesses is pain. Nothing but pain. The real heroes of this trial are the victims and witnesses for having the courage to come here and testify in the presence of their former dictator, who is sitting only a few metres away from them. The heroes of this trial are these people.”
The verdict is due at the end of May.
Lead image: Jacqueline Moudeina (Photo: Aida Grovestins/Justice)
My Justice highlights the stories of individuals who work in the field of international justice or who have been affected by it and asks what does justice mean to them.