Hissène Habré’s release decision due to Covid-19 paired with the failure to pay reparations cause anger among his victims

On April 6th, a tribunal in Senegal has authorized the temporary release of Hissène Habré as a Covid-19 health measure. This decision occurs while victims of the Chadian dictator’s regime have yet to receive any reparations four years after his condemnation in 2016.

According to a Chadian inquiry commission, Habré’s dictatorship caused the death of 40 000 people between 1982 and 1990. Later on, at his trial in front of the Extraordinary African Chamber (EAC) he was convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, including rape, sexual violence and sexual slavery. By an appeal judgment, he was sentenced to life in prison. The appellate court also awarded 125 million euros to 7396 identified victims. In a separate Chadian trial, twenty-one accomplices of the former President were convicted on brutality charges. The court ordered 114 million euros of compensation to the victims and more importantly the implementation of an effective reparation system.

A special African Union (AU) fiduciary fund was mandated in order to raise money, including looking for Habré’s assets and soliciting voluntary contributions, but victims are still waiting. Indeed, despite the UA’s 5 million dollars attribution, the fund has yet to be operational. Moreover, regarding the Chadian court decision, the government still has not fulfilled its obligations, even though it was supposed to be an equal contributor (along the convicts) of the millions ordered. But according to lawyers and victims, Habré and his henchmen have organized their own insolvability and may even have hidden their assets.

In response, victim’s lawyers submitted a complaint in 2017 to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) regarding the state’s failure to execute the sentence. Furthermore, earlier that year a United Nation’s working group had already expressed its concern over this non-fulfilment. In February 2020, a meeting was held between AU and Chad regarding the completion of the compensation fund and the need to accelerate the process. A conference should have been held in May but remained a dead letter due to the pandemic .

These concerns take place while the former President has been temporarily released. Indeed, a request from Habré’s lawyer argued that “prison is a place presenting real contamination risks” and due to his age, his client is particularly “vulnerable”. Hence the tribunal has ruled in favor of a 60 days release (renewable) in house arrest. According to him, Habré’s vulnerability as well as lack of space in his prison were valid reasons to authorize his release. Indeed, in order to fight against the actual pandemic, Senegalese authorities have decided to reduce the density in the country’s prisons. As said in the ruling, Habré occupying by himself a special area of six premises, his release would “automatically increase the prison’s accommodation capacity”, while his presence would “interfere with the fight against Covid-19”. In response to the victim’s worries, the Senegalese head of state Macky Sall, has ensured that this decision is not a hidden amnesty attempt. Thus, he specified that in accordance with the judge’s ruling, the former dictator will reintegrate the penitentiary establishment immediately after the pandemic. It is important to recall that Senegal has to respect its agreement with the African Union. According to the EAC Statute, Senegal is legally bound by the duration of the sentence, Habré being an international prisoner and not a local one. Therefore, in case of non-fulfilment, the State will engage its international responsibility.

Hissène Habré’s case has been praised as the first use of universal competence on the African continent but also, as the first condemnation by an African court of a former African head of state regarding crimes against humanity. However, the actual situation challenges the place granted to the victims in these types of disputes. Activists report that a lot of victims are still suffering sequelae and many of them are living in precariousness. They also recall that the victims who have testified during the trial, overcoming their own shame and terror, deserve compensation and recognition. In accordance with the Resolution 60/147 adopted by the United Nations General Assembly an “adequate, effective and prompt reparation is intended to promote justice by redressing gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law”. In international human rights law, reparations have a significant place even when they are not pecuniary. On this basis, it is interesting to highlight that the Chadian State was also ordered to erect a memorial as well as a museum in the victim’s memory in a one-year deadline, but nothing has been done. Described as “a milestone for justice in Africa”, the suspicions of amnesty and the numerous pressures calling for Habré’s final release, added to the failure to implement an effective reparation system question the efficiency of these decisions.

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