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Chad/Senegal: Former Chad Dictator Hissène Habré Prosecuted

(Oct. 8, 2015) On September 7, 2015, the trial of the former leader of Chad, Hissène Habré, resumed, following a 45-day delay of the proceedings. Habré, who was dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990, is facing charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture before the Extraordinary African Chamber, an ad hoc tribunal, in Senegal. (Nicolas Boring, African Union; Chad; Senegal: Former Chad Dictator Hissene Habre’s Trial Opens in Dakar, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (July 21, 2015); Hissène Habré, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (last visited Sept. 25, 2015).) This trial is not only a turning point for justice in Africa, but also a historic first.  It is the only case to date in Africa in which the courts of one country have used the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. This event has special significance in a continent that largely criticizes and rejects the authority of the International Criminal Court. (Hissène Habré refuse de comparaître à la reprise de son procès à Dakar [Hissène Habré Refuses to Attend His Trial in Dakar], LE MONDE (Sept. 7, 2015).)

Context and History

In 1983, Habré created a political police force, the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), said to be responsible for over 40,000 deaths, countless acts of torture, and numerous human rights violations against men, women, and children. (Adèle Humbert, Les enjeux du procès d’Hissène Habré [The Stakes of Hissene Habre’s Trial], LE MONDE, (July 20, 2015).) In 1990, Habré was overthrown by Idriss Deby, the Chief of Staff of his army, and Habré sought asylum in Senegal. In 2000, the first judicial complaint against Habré was registered in Senegal, based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, but the Senegalese courts ruled that they did not have jurisdiction over the case. (Id.)

In 2001, a Human Rights Watch team found the DDS archives that included extensive evidence of war crimes, including lists of prisoners, torture reports, and death certificates of the DDS’s victims. (Historical Background: Chad: The Victims of Hissène Habré Still Awaiting Justice, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (July 2005).) In 2005, Belgian courts issued an international arrest warrant and an extradition request for the former dictator for “substantial human rights violations” after some of the victims of his regime filed criminal charges against him in Belgium. (Humbert, supra.) The Senegalese justice authorities repeatedly refused to comply with the extradition request. (Id.) This changed in 2012, however, with the election of Macky Sall, Senegal’s current president. Under Sall’s leadership, and following increasing international pressure, particularly on the part of the African Union, Senegal finally agreed to prosecute Habré. (Id.; Constance Johnson, Senegal: New Court to Try Former Chadian Leader, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Aug. 29, 2012); Boring, supra.)


The trial is based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. (Joan Tilouine, L’Afrique veut-t-elle vraiment juger ses dictateurs, ou le le procès d’Habré restera-t-il une exception? [Does Africa Truly Want to Prosecute Its Dictators, or Will the Trial of Habré Remain an Exception?], LE MONDE (July 20, 2015).) This principle allows “national courts to try cases of the gravest crimes against humanity, even if these crimes are not committed in the national territory and even if they are committed by government leaders of other states.” (Universal Jurisdiction, GLOBAL POLICY FORUM (last visited Sept. 25, 2015].) Universal jurisdiction is in tension with another international law principle, the sovereignty of  states, and can give rise to legal, political, and diplomatic issues.

In this case, Senegal repeatedly refused both to prosecute Habré in its national courts and to honor Belgium’s extradition request. These refusals by Senegal’s former President were officially based on the principle of state sovereignty. (Humbert, supra.) There are allegations, however, that Senegal’s past refusal to prosecute or extradite are linked to the fact that Habré made substantial gifts to Senegal’s former President, Abdou Diouf, and other Senegalese officials at the time when he asked for asylum after being overthrown. (Christophe Châtelot, Le cher voisin de Dakar [Dakar’s Dear Neighbor], LE MONDE (Sept. 6, 2015).)

Habré is being tried in Senegal by the Extraordinary African Chamber, an ad hoc tribunal created specifically for Habré’s trial, on the African Union’s insistence. (Humbert, supra.) It is composed of African judges applying international criminal law. (Id.) The statute of limitations does not apply to this ad hoc tribunal, which makes Habré’s prosecution possible 22 years after his overthrow. (Id.)


This trial is of interest to thousands of victims of crimes against humanity in Africa, including some 4,200 victims who are joining the prosecution as civil plaintiffs (partie civile). (Humbert, supra.) However, the procedure has already been interrupted several times by the accused himself. Habré contests the Extraordinary African Chamber’s jurisdiction and refuses to be present for his own trial, which delayed the hearing originally set for July 20, 2015. (Nicolas Boring, African Union; Chad; Senegal: Former Chad Dictator Hissene Habre’s Trial Adjourned to September, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (July 28, 2015); Christophe Châtelot, Hissène Habré provoque l’interruption de son procès [Hissene Habre Interrupts His Trial], LE MONDE (July 20, 2015).)

The accused claims the tribunal is the embodiment of colonialism and imperialism, of which he is a victim. (Id.) He has also asked his lawyers not to represent him. This request led to a 45-day interruption of the trial, to give his court-appointed lawyers time to study the case and prepare his defense. (Id.) The trial resumed on September 7, 2015, and witnesses are now testifying against the former dictator. Habré, who is 73 years old, is facing a sentence of 30 years in jail or a life of penal labor. (Hissène Habré refuse de comparaître à la reprise de son procès à Dakar, supra.)

This article was prepared with the assistance of Law Library of Congress intern Chloé Gillenwater.