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After Fifteen Years, 'Dictator Hunter' Sees Justice In Chad


We turn now to a story about a long search for justice in Africa. Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre is now imprisoned awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture. Habre seized power in 1982 with the support of the U.S. government at that time. But while he was known as a strategic ally for the West, in his own country he quickly became feared for his brutality, allegedly torturing and killing his political opponents. He had lived comfortably in exile in Senegal for decades until survivors and the human rights community convinced a new Senegalese government to arrest him. They were helped by a man known to some as the dictator hunter. Reed Brody is legal counsel and spokesman for Human Rights Watch. He's been working on the case against Habre for nearly 15 years. And Reed Brody is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

REED BRODY: You're welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: Can you start by telling us a little bit more about the allegations against Hissene Habre. What is it exactly that victims have sought to hold him to account for all these years?

BRODY: Well, as you said, he's alleged to have committed thousands of political killings, systematic torture. I happened to stumble many years ago on the files of his political police, The DDS, which were his eyes and ears, and functioned kind of - people said it was like his personal Gestapo.

But the documents of the DDS, tens of thousands, provide a roadmap to what happened in the country. And just in those documents there are the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention - of over 12,000 people who were tortured or victims of arbitrary arrest.

Chad is a very complicated country. It's an ethnic mosaic and when the leaders of a particular ethnic group became disaffected with his rule, he would organize campaigns against that entire ethnic group. So we have, in 1987, we have lists and lists of Hadjerais who were captured, imprisoned, killed. In 1989 the Zaghawa met the same fate. There was a prison in his very backyard, as well as prisons all over the country.

MARTIN: I want to mention that you've worked against dictators like Haiti's Baby Doc Duvalier and Uganda's Idi Amin. How did you get involved in this case?

BRODY: I was working on the case of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in 1998 when he was in London on a warrant from a Spanish judge. Under the principle of universal jurisdiction that says that some crimes are so outrageous that any court anywhere can prosecute their perpetrators. And when Pinochet challenged his arrest and the British House of Lords upheld his arrest for extradition, we realized that we had a tool in universal jurisdiction to bring to justice people who seemed out of the reach of justice.

And people from all over the world came to us at Human Rights Watch but also at Amnesty International. Other groups said hey, you know, we have a dictator here. And we were approached by Chadian human rights groups who told us about Hissene Habre and what he had allegedly done and asked us if we could help them do what Pinochet's victims had done - bring him to justice in the country where he was found. In Habre's case, since he fled Chad in 1990, he's been living in Senegal. So we helped them file the first case in Senegal 14 years ago actually.

MARTIN: So he's being tried in Senegal but with the technical support, I guess I would say, of the International Court of Justice. Do you feel - is there something important about the fact that he's being tried in Senegal? I mean, I'm sure that you know that there are people who believe that Africa is unfairly and disproportionally targeted by the international courts. And I just wanted to ask if you feel that there is something important about the fact that he's being tried in Senegal?

BRODY: Yeah it's precisely - the importance here is that it's one thing to complain that African leaders are being hauled before international tribunals. But it's up to then African courts and African countries to show they have the capacity to deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa.

And so Senegal, under the new government of Macky Sall, has stepped up to the plate. The other exciting thing in that context is, this is not a case that has been pursued or initiated by some international prosecutor, international agency. This is the victims themselves who over the last 23 years, and particularly over the last 15 years, with perseverance and tenacity have pushed this case forward until the president of Senegal agreed, together with the African Union, to set up this court last year to begin the procedure.

So the victims here are really the architects and that's a very empowering situation. They will be parties to the trial - the victim's lawyers from Chad, including a very brave woman who was almost killed by one of Habre's accomplices, will be the lawyer together with the prosecutors and the defense, the victims will have their own legal team.

MARTIN: I'm thinking about the fact that it's taken 15 years. On the one hand, that might seem like a very long time. On the other hand, given the gravity of the charges against this man, you know, I don't know that it is. I'm just interested in - since you are so connected to the complainants here, what is their sense about how long it's taken to get to this point? Do they feel vindicated to have at least gotten to this point? Are they disappointed? What is their state of mind?

BRODY: Well, I think at the moment they're all thrilled. It's been a long way to get here and many of the people who began the case have died along the way. And that's the unfortunate part. Friends of ours - friends of mine who started this case who are no longer alive and those who are, are that much older. But it's always a struggle. We saw that in Guatemala, it took 30 years of fighting by the victims to bring Rios Montt to justice.

You mention Jean-Claude Duvalier - 25 years after his crimes his victims have put him before a court. It's a long struggle, often too long. The time of justice and the time of human lives are not always in sync, but this case shows that to potential torturers and tyrants that you will never be out of the reach of your victims.

MARTIN: Reed Brody is legal counsel and spokesman for Human Rights Watch. We caught up with him at the BBC studio in Brussels, Belgium. Reed Brody, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRODY: You're quite welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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