Pursuing Chadian dictator Habré: ‘It’s Africa judging Africa’

Pambazuka News, February 2015

An interview with Jacqueline Moudeina (transcribed and translated from French)

Jacqueline Moudeina is a Chadian lawyer and President of The Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH). She is a recipient of the 2011 Right Livelihood Award. Moudeina is pursuing justice for the survivors of former Chadian president Hissène Habré’s terror regime.

ZAHRA MOLOO: Can you give a bit of context about the regime of the former president?

JACQUELINE MOUDEINA: Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, was in power from 7 June 1982 to 1 December 1990, a period of eight years. Those were years of terror. Every Chadian was afraid of his or her own shadow. In a couple you would have a man who feared his wife, and vice versa, and both would be afraid of their own children. Uttering even a little sentence could mean risking your life. It was a reign of terror under Hissène Habré, and when he left power on 1 December 1990 – as a result of a coup carried out by the current Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno – when he left and the new government was put in place, the new government ordered an investigation. The results of that report, finalized in 1992, concluded that 40,000 Chadians had been killed and thousands were disappeared or became widows and orphans. But the investigation did not cover the entire country. The results came from samples which enabled us to come up with a figure of 40,000 people killed and thousands disappeared.

Under Hissène Habré, serious and continuous human rights violations were carried out, from North to South, from East to West. Nobody was spared. These were very sad times. For example, in 1984, Hissène Habré only targeted the large Sara ethnic group. This period was called Black September, where entire villages were burned to the ground and people were slaughtered. In 1986 and 1987, it was the turn of another ethnic group, the Hadjarai. In 1990, it was the turn of the Zaghawa, the ethnic group to which the current president belongs. This was because the current president, who was practically the right hand man of Hissène Habré, his Chief of Staff, started a rebellion. So in 1990, Hissène Habré started to execute the entire ethnic group of the current president. These were very difficult times and there were frequent and widespread human rights violations. This is why we decided to go after Hissène Habré and his accomplices. He is being pursued internationally, and in Chad, we are going after his accomplices who have been integrated into the current political structure, and who still hold positions of responsibility.

ZM: Is it easier to target [Habré], rather than his accomplices, in Senegal? You’ve had a few experiences with the Senegalese government while working on this case. Can you talk about this process?

JM: Yes, you know, the legal proceedings that were put into motion against Hissène Habré began in February 2000. We lodged our first complaint in February 2000, Hissène Habré was charged and after several prevarications – because this case is not only a legal matter, it’s also highly political – so, after many prevarications, the Senegalese judicial system was declared incompetent. We then went to Belgium, by way of the Belgian law regarding universal jurisdiction. Upon arrival in Belgium, the examining magistrate received us and welcomed our case. After four years of work, the Belgian investigating magistrate charged Hissène Habré with three major international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of torture. At the same time, he issued an international arrest warrant for Hissène Habré, which enabled Belgium to ask that he be extradited in order for him to be judged in Belgium. Unfortunately for us, the former Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, refused the extradition. He preferred to turn our case file into an African one, which is why he then sent our file to the African Union.

You will agree with me that the African Union is not a legal authority. Still, the African Union took it upon themselves to entrust the case to a group of eminent jurists. Finally, the option which was remaining – since the African heads of states said that no African head of state can be judged by ‘the white people’, those were the terms they used – was to go forward with an African option. The eminent jurists, to whom the file was entrusted, suggested that the case be sent back to Senegal, which is what happened. The case was sent back to Senegal. Unfortunately, President Wade did not want Habré to be judged, and it wasn’t just him; at the head of the African Union there is a syndicate of heads of state. You know, to judge Hissène Habré is a precedent, and no head of state wants this to happen because they see in this their own destiny. Things only progressed once the current Senegalese president, Macky Sall, came to power; he embraced the idea of our battle against impunity. And so, Senegal started negotiations with the African Union and came to an agreement that led to the creation of the Extraordinary African Chambers within the Senegalese jurisdiction, to judge Hissène Habré. So that is what happened and the EAC have been operational [since 2013].

ZM: How did you gather the testimonies of victims of Hissène Habré’s regime – was it difficult?

JM: You know, I have been working on this case since 1998; it’s been 16 years now. One of the first things I did was to collect information. I work a lot with the victims. Today I am doing an assessment –it has revealed about 7,000 victims, direct and indirect. So I have a lot of information. We also managed to access the archives of the governing bodies of documentation and security under Mr Hissène Habré. These archives have given us a lot of information and have enabled us to build a solid case file. So when it comes to information, we have enough.

ZM: During the year 2000, when you submitted this file, you were the only lawyer willing to take the risk and do this work. Did you experience any threats in the following years?

JM: Yes, I was practically the only lawyer and the main reason for that is that we didn’t have money; no lawyer can work without money. I decided to do it on a voluntary basis and in 2001, on June 11th to be exact, I was the victim of a grenade attack. The attack almost cost me my life, but thank God, I made it out alive, though with my right leg completely disfigured. I had to stay in bed for 15 months. Today, I suffer from many side effects because I still have fragments of the grenade in my body. I had four operations on my right foot. Last year, I was also carjacked and my car was taken, but thank God they did not take my life. So I am often under threat. But since the creation of the Chambers, other lawyers have partnered with me – two Chadians, and also, from the beginning we had a Belgian lawyer, a French lawyer and a Senegalese lawyer. But they are not quite as exposed as I am because what is most difficult is to live with the ex-perpetrators on the ground in Chad.

ZM: Is the whole process well covered in the media?

JM: You know, it’s very difficult. The former perpetrators still occupy positions of power. It’s quite challenging to get the message out into the media, but we have really tried to raise awareness, through conferences, debates, press conferences, so as to inform Chadians. Since these chambers were created and the judges have been on the ground, I believe that the government is slowly opening its doors a bit, which allows us to broadcast information to an even larger group. We do everything we can to keep Chadians informed, because this case is not just about the satisfaction of going after Hissène Habré and his accomplices. We want to solve a problem through this process, and that is reconciling Chadians between themselves, so that we can dare to lay the groundwork for sustainable peace in Chad. Chad has been through over 30 years of war. It is quite difficult today to have lasting peace. We believe that in investigating and judging Hissène Habré and his accomplices, and in judging this regime, we can attain reconciliation between Chadians.

ZM: I wanted to ask a personal question. Why did you start this work – what was your motivation?

JM: I really don’t like injustice. And I was also an orphan at a very young age, which meant I had to fight for myself throughout my life. I did not have a childhood. When I saw everything that happened under Hissène Habré, I told myself that all these orphans were living the same reality as I was. It is not easy for a child to have no mother and no father at a young age and to grow up alone. I saw that these people were considered as not having a voice. Since I had the chance to study, to get to where I am now, I can lend my voice to those who do not have a voice. And I can fight for their rights.

ZM: When you look at the situation on the rest of the continent, when you look at how impunity is widespread in so many countries – do you have hope that this process will end with a positive outcome?

JM: You know, it was the French paper Le Monde that said it best. When the Extraordinary African Chambers were created, and when there was the arrest of Hissène Habré, Le Monde came out with an article titled ‘Legal Proceedings against Hissène Habré: a Turning Point for Africa’. It will really be a turning point for Africa. This case is not only Chadian; if we succeed in judging Hissène Habré today, it’s Africa judging Africa. After this I would be surprised to see an African leader robbing and killing his people without being worried. It’s really a turning point for Africa, and a foundation for the fight against impunity in Africa. Africa will hold her head higher. So this case is not only Chadian. It is African, and why not even global?