African dictator's trial opens path to justice elsewhere

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Souleymane Guengueng was barely able to walk or see when the prison doors swung open and he and hundreds of others were released in Chad in 1990 after dictator Hissene Habre fled. He then began collecting accounts of torture. A quarter-century later, those accounts helped convict and uphold a life sentence for Habre in a landmark trial that sets a precedent for victims elsewhere to pursue justice.

"I have been fighting for this day since I walked out of prison more than 26 years ago," said Guengueng after the appeals verdict on Thursday. "All that remains now are the reparations to satisfy what was decided today ... because without those, justice is not complete."

An appeals court upheld Habre's life sentence and confirmed that reparations of more than 82 billion CFA ($135 million) will be managed by a trust fund set up by the African Union.

Habre's is the first conviction of a former head of state by an African court for crimes against humanity. His trial was also the first in which courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. The Extraordinary African Chambers was created by the African Union and Senegal to try Habre for crimes committed during his presidency from 1982-1990.

The decision is a vindication for Chadians but also lays a path to justice for victims in other countries.

"This is the kind of thing that gives hope to people. That people can look at what Habre's victims did, how they never gave up, how they fought for justice, how they brought their tormenter to court and think that they can do that as well," said Reed Brody, an American international rights lawyer and member of the International Commission of Jurists who has worked with Habre's victims since 1999. "It definitely goes beyond Africa."

Members of Chad's victims association met with Gambians last week as citizens of that tiny West African nation emerge from 22 years under Yahya Jammeh's rule. And Guengueng, who lives in New York, hopes a foundation he has set up can help others pursue their tormentors.

"The judgment will also pave the way for other African countries to use universal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes under international law or for the establishment of similar hybrid courts, such as in the Central African Republic and South Sudan," said Amnesty International senior legal adviser Erica Bussey.

Justice and accountability in Chad are not completely satisfied, she added.

"The African Union must ensure that the mandated trust fund implements the reparation order of the court effectively and fairly and works with international donors and the government of Chad to ensure that the fund has sufficient resources. Efforts should also be made to trace, freeze and seize Habre's assets for reparation," Bussey said.

The court has said more than 7,000 victims are eligible for reparations and that more than 3,400 others could apply. The compensation should come from the seizure of Habre's assets, but it is not clear how quickly that will happen.

The court already has frozen some of Habre's assets, including some small bank accounts and a house in an upscale Dakar, Senegal neighborhood believed to be worth about $730,000. But the former dictator is thought to have made off with much more from state coffers.

Jacqueline Moudeina, head lawyer for the civil parties and the victim of an attack in Chad for working on the cases against Habre, said she was satisfied with the appeals court decision.

"This trial is the fruit of our labors for 17 years, and it's the fruits of the conviction and determination of those who have fought with us against impunity," she said. "Our work will endure until we assure there are reparations for the victims."

In March 2015, Chad's Criminal Court convicted 20 top security agents during Habre's rule to life sentences and ordered they pay reparations to over 7,000 victims, according to Human Rights Watch. That money still has yet to be paid.

"Money will never bring back my friends ... but money is important to heal the wounds," said Clement Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of the Hissene Habre Regime and a former prisoner who was forced to bury dead prisoners.

Abaifouta said it is now his role to return to Chad, make younger generations aware of injustices that continue and help them take responsibility for the future.

"Justice in Chad is only a name. What's happening in Chad now, justice doesn't fully exist," he said. "I am dreaming of now building a new society without the violence, a new society with democracy and with respect for human beings."