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Victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré yet to receive any reparations

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The victims of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré have yet to receive any reparations four years after his historic atrocity conviction in Senegal, human rights advocates said on Friday.

On May 30, 2016, Habré was convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, including sexual violence and rape, by an African Union-backed Senegalese court and sentenced to life in prison. In a separate trial in Chad, a court on March 25, 2015, convicted 20 Habré-era security agents on brutality charges. Both courts ordered millions of euros in victim compensation. The African Union and the government of Chad should fulfill their obligations to the victims under these court orders, the advocates said.

Chadian president Hissène Habré with US president Ronald Reagan at the White House June 1987 during; Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

“Habré’s victims fought relentlessly for 25 years to bring the dictator and his henchmen to justice, and were awarded millions of euros, but they haven’t seen one cent in reparations,” said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch who has worked with Habré’s victims since 1999. “Many of the victims who scored these historic victories are in dire straits and in desperate need.”

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The Habré trial is the only one in the world in which the courts of one country prosecuted the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes and was widely considered “a milestone for justice in Africa.”

When an appellate court confirmed Habré’s conviction in April 2017, and awarded 82 billion CFA francs (approximately €125 million) to 7,396 named victims, it mandated an African Union Trust Fund to raise the money by searching for Habré’s assets and soliciting contributions. Although the African Union has allocated $5 million to the Trust Fund, three years later the fund has yet to become operational. Chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat in February 2020 promised “in the near future, to convene a Resource Mobilisation Conference to maintain this Fund.” Habré, who is accused of looting tens of millions of euros from the Chadian treasury, has paid no damages himself.

In the Chadian trial of Habré’s henchmen, the court also awarded 75 billion CFA francs (approximately €114 million) in reparations to 7,000 victims, ordering the government to pay half and the convicted agents the other half. It ordered the government to erect a monument “in not more than one year” to honor those killed under Habré and to create a museum in the former political police (DDS) headquarters, where detainees were tortured. The government has not complied with any of these orders.

“The African Union and the Chadian government need to implement these court decisions so that the victims, at long last, can receive reparations for what we suffered,” said Clément Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH), who as a prisoner under Habré was forced to dig graves for many of his fellow inmates. “We fought for decades for those decisions and now the African Union and our government have made us fight again to get the decisions enforced.”

Habré’s one-party rule, from 1982-1990, was marked by widespread atrocities, including targeting certain ethnic groups. DDS files recovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001 reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. The current president, Idriss Déby Itno, deposed Habré, who fled to Senegal.

Habré had been serving his life sentence in a Senegalese prison, but on April 6, he was granted permission to return home for 60 days as a measure to protect against Covid-19 infection. On April 17, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, said that Habré “remained detained” and promised that he would “return to prison” after the crisis had passed. Senegal’s justice minister Malick Sall said on May 20 that the permission could be renewed after 60 days. Justice minister Sall has recognized that because Habré is an international prisoner, Senegal could not unilaterally pardon him.

“We will actively hold the Senegalese government to its word that Habré’s home stay is a temporary health measure and not a disguised pardon for mass murder, torture and rape,” said Jacqueline Moudeïna, lead lawyer for the victims and president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH). “We are monitoring this very closely.”

Victims are concerned because Habré’s lawyers and supporters have been campaigning for his release, prompting the UN Committee against Torture on December 23, 2019 to write to Senegal warning that “The premature release of the authors of the most serious international crimes is not in conformity with the obligations” under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, including the obligation to punish acts of torture by penalties that take into account their grave nature.

On April 30, 2020, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Fabián Salvioli, called on states not to grant pardons, amnesties, or benefits in the enforcement of sentences to people convicted of crimes against humanity or war crimes.

In November 2017, Moudeïna and other victims’ lawyers, accompanied by REDRESSsubmitted a complaint regarding Chad’s failure to implement the 2015 reparation award to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, where it is pending. In August 2017, a team of United Nations experts expressed their concern over the Chadian government’s failure to carry out reparations.

“By failing to provide redress to Habré´s victims, Chad is knowingly causing the victims further suffering and depriving them of effective judicial remedies to assert their rights,” said Rupert Skilbeck, director of REDRESS.

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