The DDS on trial
DDS stands for the “Directorate of Documentation and Security” of Chad,. It was the secret police of the dictator Hissène Habré who came to power in a coup in 1982. He began to target ethnic groups he felt were against his rule; as reported by the BBC, these were “The Sara in 1984, the Hadjerai in 1987 and Chadian Arabs and the Zaghawa in 1989-90.” In 1989, after a failed coup attempt against him, Habré intensified a reign of terror in which an estimated 40,000 people were killed and another 200,000 tortured. In 1990, he was ousted in another coup and found refuge in Senegal.
His victims had a difficult time bringing him to trial. When they appealed to a court in Habré’s place of exile, Senegal, the court said it had no jurisdiction over crimes committed in another country. In 2005, after four years of investigations, a judge in Belgium issued a warrant for Habré’s arrest, as the Belgian constitution authorizes its courts to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity anywhere in the world.
What made Habré’s prosecution possible after decades of delay, was the precedent established by the arrest of the former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, while he was in London in 1998. An arrest warrant had been issued by a Spanish court, which had accepted the case on the principle, in Spanish and international law, of “universal jurisdiction” for human rights crimes committed even if committed in Chile. The British courts rejected Pinochet’s assertion of immunity and said he could be extradited to Spain for trial (he managed to avoid extradition by being declared mentally incompetent to stand trial).
Using the “Pinochet precedent” as its argument, a case was again filed in Senegal and a judge ordered that the former dictator be placed under house arrest. Senegal, however kept changing its mind on whether to proceed with a trial, largely due to the question of who should fund it. Four extradition requests from Belgium were rejected in the meantime.
Another major breakthrough was the discovery, by Reed Brody, of the detailed records of the DDS: untouched and forgotten, in the former headquarters of the organization. As Brody recounted, an analysis revealed “The documents mention 12,321 victims of abuse, including the death in detention of 1,208 of them. Habré himself received 1,265 direct communications from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees.”
Finally, the African Union (the association of African countries) appealed to the then-president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, who relented. The Senegalese constitution was amended to permit war crimes and crimes against humanity prosecution in the country, even if it was committed elsewhere. Then Senegal decided it would extradite Habré to Chad, at which point the United Nations stepped in, saying doing so ran the risk of the ex-dictator being tortured in his home country. Finally, in 2012 the International Court of Justice at the Hague issued an order to Senegal: put him on trial immediately, or extradite him to Belgium.
In 2013 the Special African Chamber was established for the specific purpose of the trial of Habré. Lasting nine months, the trial resulted in a conviction on May 30, 2016 for crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, and rape. The ex-dictator was sentenced to life imprisonment in Senegal.
Human Rights Watch traces the concept of “universal jurisdiction” to the crime of piracy, since pirates would have been difficult to pin down if the law insisted on countries only trying cases involving crimes within their territory. For human rights, a similar principle operates: no violator of human rights should be able to enjoy a safe haven on the basis of national sovereignty. The UN Conventions on turture, genocide, and war crimes, ratified by many nations, further fortifies this principle.
The very existence of the International Criminal Court at the Hague bolsters these convenants, as it is precisely meant to be the “court of last resort” for the prosecution of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The ICC has convicted former heads of state and other leaders, for example, Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice President of the Congo was arrested in 2008 and convicted in 2016 (an additional year was added to his 18-year sentence just this year); ex-president Laurent Gbago of the Ivory Coast was ordered arrested in 2011 and his trial at the Hague began in 2016. President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan became the first incumbent head of state to be indicted by the ICC: he has two ICC arrest warrants on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity: 2009 and 2010 but remains free.
Bashir continues to visit countries uninterested in the Rome Statutes. While he remains in power, chances are he will remain a free man. But as Habré and his DDS discovered, your luck can eventually run out in the face of relentless prosecution for your crimes.