Hissène Habré, Ex-President of Chad Jailed for War Crimes, Dies at 79
Mr. Habré, who received a life sentence for crimes against humanity including torture and sex offenses, was said to be out of prison for medical treatment at his death.
President Hissène Habré met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987. The Reagan administration backed him when he took power in a coup in 1982 and supported him afterward as a bulwark against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya.Mike Sargent/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By Ruth Maclean and Mady Camara
Published Aug. 24, 2021Updated Aug. 27, 2021
DAKAR, Senegal — Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, died on Tuesday while serving a life sentence in Senegal for crimes against humanity, including killings, torture and sex offenses, during his rule in the 1980s. He was 79.
His death was confirmed by Lt. Mame Balla Faye, the director of the Cap Manuel prison in Senegal, the West African country where Mr. Habré was being held after being convicted there in 2016. Mr. Faye did not provide further details.
He was not in prison at his death, however, according to news media reports. He had spent 10 days in a nearby clinic receiving treatment for complications of diabetes and high blood pressure, Senegalese news media said. Some outlets reported that he had been infected with the coronavirus.
Mr. Habré was allowed out of prison for 60 days in April 2020 after a judge said he was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. His wife had long petitioned the Senegalese authorities to release him on health grounds even before the pandemic.
Mr. Habré was the first former head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity by another country’s courts.
A former defense minister, he took power in 1982 in a coup backed by the United States, and once in office he received weapons and assistance from France, Israel and the United States to keep Libya, Chad’s northern neighbor, at bay.
His rule was violent from the start. Prisoners of war and political opponents were killed. But the Reagan administration kept supplying him with weapons to keep up the fight against Libya, led by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
A Chadian truth commission found that Mr. Habré’s government had killed more than 40,000 people believed to be enemies of the state, including those who had merely come under suspicion.
Mr. Habré lost power in 1990 the way he had taken it, in a coup. He then fled to Senegal, taking $12 million from the national bank accounts with him. For years he lived quietly in coastal Dakar, the country’s capital, buying properties there and remaining untroubled by the government of Abdoulaye Wade, which kept delaying his prosecution.
It was the government of Mr. Wade’s successor, President Macky Sall, that tried him, setting up a special court with the African Union to do so — the Extraordinary African Chambers.
On the first day of his trial, Mr. Habré was dragged into the courtroom kicking and shouting insults at the judge. “Down with colonialism!” he said. Afterward he sat through the testimony of dozens of his victims, hiding his face behind a large white turban and sunglasses.
When he was convicted, those victims rejoiced, punched the air, cried and ululated in the court. They had fought for justice for decades.
But five years later, nearly 8,000 victims are still waiting for the $150 million in compensation they were jointly awarded.
“Since the trial, five years have passed. Nothing has been done,” said Clément Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of the Hissène Habré Regime. “The court of Dakar has not seized his property. The African Union, which is handling the case, does nothing. Up until now, Hissène Habré has not paid a single cent. Nothing.”
Mr. Abaifouta was arrested as a young student and spent four years in one of Mr. Habré’s notorious prisons, an experience that ruined his life, he said. He was forced to dig the graves of his friends and cellmates, many of whom died because the prison conditions were so bad. He became known as the “gravedigger.”
Mr. Abaifouta said that Mr. Habré’s death would bring no relief to his victims, because many former subordinates had not faced justice and still permeated Chad’s government.
Mr. Habré at a court hearing in 2015 in Dakar, Senegal. He was the first former head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity by another country’s courts.Cemil Oksuz/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images
“Now, in Chad, you have governors, you have brigade commanders, commissioners, presidential advisers, all of whom worked with Hissène Habré,” he said. “So the victims are still scared, even if Hissène Habré is no longer there. They’re everywhere, these people.”
The imprisonment, killings and torture carried out by Mr. Habré’s secret police, the Directorate of Documentation and Security, became widely known, thanks in part to the meticulous documentation of victim testimonies by Souleymane Guengueng, a survivor who had almost died in jail. Mr. Guengueng promised himself that if he ever got out, he would bring his torturers to justice — and eventually, he did.
Reed Brody, who has worked with Mr. Habré’s victims for over two decades, said the former president would “go down in history as one of the world’s most pitiless dictators, a man who slaughtered his own people to seize and maintain power, who burned down entire villages, sent women to serve as sexual slaves for his troops and built clandestine dungeons to inflict medieval torture on his enemies.”
Mr. Habré’s successor and onetime army chief, Idriss Déby, died on the battlefield in April and was succeeded by his son Mahamat, a 37-year-old four-star military general.
Hissène Habré was born on Aug. 13, 1942, to a family of herders in Largeau, in northern Chad, then a colony of France. Excelling in school, he went to work for the French colonial administration and earned a scholarship to study in France, where he took up political science and law. Chad achieved full independence in 1960.
After his return to Chad in the early 1970s Mr. Habré joined an insurgent movement fighting against Chad’s first post-independence government. After that government was toppled in a military coup, he became prime minister for a short spell in a power-sharing agreement, but six months later it fell apart amid fighting between his forces and the national army. He became a rebel once more, leading the successful coup in 1982.
His survivors include his two wives, Fatime Hachem Habré and Fatime Raymonde Habré.
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