DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — For more than 20 years, former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre lived a life of luxurious exile in Senegal, taking a second wife and watching “Seinfeld” shows.
But 3,000 miles east of here, a truth commission and rights workers in Chad were documenting widespread abuses during Habre’s rule, including disappearances, torture and prison cells so cramped that inmates often died for lack of air.
That exiled life was upended June 30 when paramilitary police stormed his home in Dakar’s posh Almadies neighborhood, taking him into custody in a move victims said was long overdue. After years of back-and-forth, Senegal and the African Union last year agreed to establish a special court to try the case. On Tuesday, judges at the court in Dakar formally charged Habre with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. His trial could begin as soon as next year.
Habre had arrived in Senegal in 1990 and kept a low profile for more than two decades, embracing a quiet life as allegations against him mounted. Neighbors and relatives say that over time, the former president learned to converse in Wolof and developed a taste for thieboudienne, the national dish of fish and rice. He married a Senegalese woman as his second wife. Allegedly with the help of illicit payments, he implanted himself so deeply into Senegalese society that officials refused to arrest him, allowing him to become a symbol of impunity and of Africa’s unwillingness to try its own.
Now his fate will rest on whether prosecutors can successfully link the kindly, adopted resident of Senegal to the fastidious Chadian autocrat who allegedly received hand-delivered reports on hundreds of detainees tortured and killed by his forces.
Many who saw Habre on a regular basis in Dakar say they find it difficult to square the brutal ruler they read about in newspapers with the neighbor who lived among them.
Ousmane Balde, a retired military officer who sits with friends every morning on a bench not far from the villa where Habre lived with his Chadian family, said he admired Habre’s ability to “become Senegalese.”
“I’m very sad about the way in which he was taken,” Balde said. “Many African presidents have committed errors, committed crimes. But he’s Senegalese, and he should be treated without brutality. All of Dakar is grieving over this.”
Habre’s own meticulousness, and the large paper trail he left behind after being deposed in a 1990 military coup, could ultimately doom him in court.
The regime’s most sinister weapon was its political police force, ostensibly established to defend the country from external threats like the one posed by Moammar Gadhafi in neighboring Libya. In 2001, Human Rights Watch researcher Reed Brody discovered the force’s archives on the floor of its headquarters. The documents mentioned more than 12,000 victims of Chad’s detention network. They also indicated that Habre received direct communications concerning 900 detainees.
Brody said the documents shed considerable light on Habre’s hands-on leadership style.
“What these documents make very clear is that Hissene Habre was kept informed of virtually everything, from the cloth being used for uniforms to the deaths of prisoners,” Brody said. “What we see here is a control freak, really, who was keeping on top of every detail.”
While the documents will be an important element of the case, they won’t do all the work for prosecutors. “To be honest, we don’t have a document where Hissene Habre says, ‘Go kill this person,’” Brody acknowledges.
The case resembles ongoing trials of former Khmer Rouge regime leaders in Cambodia, who like Habre were indicted at a special tribunal decades after they fell from power and have had abandoned documents used against them by prosecutors.
Anne Heindel, who has followed those trials in her role as legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the case against Habre would be strengthened if the documents could be authenticated in court, perhaps by bringing their authors in to testify.
“It’s not necessarily a slam dunk, even with documents,” Heindel said. “When a long time has passed, many of the victims or witnesses may have died. Their memories may be weak, and they can certainly be challenged by the fact that their memories may have become faulty.”
Habre’s defense team has derided the case as political, emphasizing the fact that Chad’s current government — headed by Idriss Deby, the same man who ousted Habre in 1990 — is the court’s biggest donor. This line was echoed by several Habre supporters, including 25-year-old nephew Mohammed Ali Tidiane, who lived with Habre in Dakar.
“I think these are the false allegations of President Deby,” Tidiane said. “Deby is afraid of Habre. He knows that it’s Habre who liberated Chad from the arms of Gadhafi.”
But Mbacke Fall, the case’s lead prosecutor, said the evidence showed Habre was “primarily responsible” for crimes committed by his security apparatus, citing his role in overseeing its work down to the smallest detail.
If neighbors’ memories are any guide, Habre retained this fastidiousness even in Senegal, though it showed through in curious ways. One former neighbor recalled a dispute that began when he was caught depositing trash in Habre’s garbage cans. One day, the neighbor returned home to find a long-winded letter written “in cold, formal French” by Habre’s wife, urging him to get his own garbage can. The neighbor, who insisted on anonymity because he works in a high-profile job and is not allowed to comment publicly, complied.
He considered the matter settled until the following year, when he returned home to find the new garbage can had been moved to where he parked his car. His guards told him this had been Habre’s doing. The former dictator, who was technically under house arrest but moved freely between homes every two days, had instructed his guards to have the garbage can moved out of view. He couldn’t bear to look at it.