Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre, whose government was accused of killing tens of thousands and became the first former head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity by an African court after spending decades in luxurious exile in Senegal, has died in a hospital in Senegal. He was 79.
Habre, whose case for years showcased Africa’s reluctance to put its despots on trial, had recently contracted COVID-19 according to local media reports. His death Tuesday at a Dakar hospital was confirmed by Jean Bertrand Bocande, director of the penitentiary administration.
The former dictator had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2016 but ultimately served about five years in prison following his trial on charges linked to his time in power from 1982 to 1990.
Human rights activists say Chad was a ruthless, one-party state under Habre’s rule. A fearsome security service headed by members of Habre’s Gorane ethnic group was placed in every village, documenting even the slightest transgressions against the regime, they said.
The list of offenses meriting arrest included speaking ill of Habre, listening to “enemy” radio stations or “performing magical rites to aid the enemy,” according to a truth commission appointed shortly after Habre fell from power.
The commission concluded that Habre’s government oversaw 40,000 killings.
“Hissene Habre will go down in history as one of the world’s most pitiless dictators, a man who slaughtered his own people, 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,” tweeted Reed Brody, a Human Rights Watch lawyer who worked for years to bring Habre to justice.
Earlier this year he wrote that five years after Habre’s conviction “torture survivors and families of the dead have not seen one penny.”
“The African Union has failed even to establish the court-mandated trust fund to search for Habre’s assets and solicit contributions,” Brody wrote. “The Chadian government, ordered by its own court to erect memorials and compensate victims, has also turned its back on them. And Habre himself has never accounted for the tens of millions of dollars he allegedly looted from the Chadian treasury.”
Detainees were subject to a wide range of torture techniques. Some were burned, others were sprayed with poison gas and still more were forced to put their mouths around the exhaust pipes of running vehicles, causing severe burning when the motor accelerated.
Habre was born the son of a farmer in the northern Chadian town of Faya-Largeau in 1942. The country was still under French colonial rule, and he worked as a civilian for the French military before being selected to study in France, where he earned a law degree.
He returned in 1971 to work for Chad’s foreign affairs ministry, but he soon became involved in a peasant rebellion of Muslim northerners against the largely southern-dominated Christian government.
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His rise did not seem driven by ideology. The final report of the truth commission sharply criticized Habre’s opportunism, describing him as “a man without scruples” motivated by power alone. “Thus he would join with the armed rebellion one moment and with the government the next. To win over public sympathy, he portrayed himself by turns as a convinced Maoist and a fervent Muslim,” the report said.
In a later passage, the report said that despite Habre’s education, his “comportment and thinking are not much different from those of a camel thief.”
Habre became prime minister under then-President Felix Malloum in 1978, but Malloum fell from power the following year.
In 1982, Habre deposed President Goukouni Oueddei, beginning his eight years as head of state. Aware that his regime was under threat from Libya, Habre created his security service known as the Directorate of Documentation and Security, or DDS, not long after becoming president.
He received substantial support from the United States and France because he was seen as a “bulwark” against former Libya dictator Moammar Gadhafi, according to Human Rights Watch. Habre received hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid and was invited to the White House, HRW says, while support from France came in the form of arms and logistical support.
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