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  • Rape and The President:The remarkable trial and (partial) acquittal of Hissène Habré
  • Kim Thuy Seelinger (bio)

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Researchers discovered thousands of files in Chad allegedly documenting crimes committed under the Hissène Habré regime.


On May 30, 2016, the Extraordinary African Chambers in the courts of Senegal issued its historic conviction of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad. In handing Habré a life sentence for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of torture committed in Chad from 1982 to 1990, the trial chamber delivered the most important milestone in international criminal justice in years. It was a victory for universal jurisdiction, the principle by which a state can prosecute a person [End Page 16] accused of atrocities regardless of where those atrocities were committed. The judgment was also the first time a domestic court had convicted a former head of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Finally, the decision was groundbreaking in terms of its considerable inclusion of sexual crimes. After trial judges amended charges to include acts of sexual violence, Habré was convicted of rape and sexual slavery committed as crimes against humanity and acts of torture. It was a remarkable day in a remarkable trial.

This year, on April 27, 2017, the appeals chamber upheld all of Habré's convictions—except for one. In preserving the life sentence, Judge Wafi Ougadeye reaffirmed the trial judgment that had, in the course of a year, become famous for its elevated treatment of sexual violence. But the appeals chamber partially acquitted Habré of rape as a crime against humanity and act of torture on procedural grounds. It found that one woman, who accused Habré of personally raping her, had spoken up too late for the testimony to be included as evidence. In so doing, the court raised a critical question posed by the prosecution of sexual violence: How can courts balance survivors' readiness to disclose their experiences with defendants' rights to know the full nature of charges against them as soon as possible?


In the early 1980s, Habré rose to power amid political tumult in Chad. The U.S. provided millions of dollars in covert assistance to Habré, considered an anti-Gadhafi ally in the region, to help him overthrow President Goukouni Oueddeye, who was seen as a friend of the Libyan leader. In 1982, Habré seized the presidency, imposing one-party rule and suppressing ethnic groups such as the Sara and the Hedjarai in the south and the Zaghawa in the northeast. Habré orchestrated this oppression through a security agency called the Documentation and Security Directorate, or DDS. Later known as "the instrument of terror," the DDS was charged with eliminating opposition and political resistance. Eventually, Idris Déby Itno, Habré's former commander-in-chief, formed an army and ousted the president on Dec. 1, 1990. After emptying the national treasury, Habré fled the country, settling in Senegal, where he has been allowed to reside ever since.

By 1991, Déby had become president of Chad and established the Commission of Inquiry into the Crimes and Misappropriations Committed by Ex-President Habré to document atrocities carried out by the previous regime. The Commission published its report in May 1992, concluding that Habré's government was responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths and for acts amounting to "cruelty, contempt, and terrorizing the population."

Seven Chadian victims and a victims' association filed a private prosecution in Dakar Regional Court on Jan. 26, 2000, which accused Habré of "torture, barbarous acts, and crimes against humanity." On Feb. 3, 2000, Habré was indicted, and placed under house arrest in Senegal.

In May 2001, the international NGO Human Rights Watch discovered thousands of documents in the former DDS headquarters in N'Djamèna, Chad's capital. The files contained lists of prisoners and DDS agents, death certificates, intelligence reports, and letters addressed to then-President Habré regarding the detentions, displacements, and deaths. The cache also included the names of 1,208 people who had been killed or who had died in detention and 12,321 victims of arbitrary detention, torture, and other human rights...


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pp. 16-22
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