I will not feel complete until [Hissène] Habré is in jail. I can’t have psychological peace. We are doing this to prevent it happening again, for future generations.
The dilemma of Habré was for some time not that of African trial vs. European trial, but of trial elsewhere vs. no trial at all.
Here is the essential illogic of war criminals. “If you kill one person, you go to jail,” observes Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. “You kill 40 people, they put you in an insane asylum. You kill 40,000 people, you get a comfortable exile with your bank account in another country.”
As he speaks, Brody’s driving through N’Djamena, Chad, at work on an indictment against Hissène Habré, dictator of Chad from 1982-1990. The titular figure in Klaartje Quirijns’ fascinating The Dictator Hunter, Brody remains committed to the case, despite serial setbacks (at the time of the shoot, in 2006, he’d been on it for some seven years; currently, Habré’s trial has yet to begin). The documentary, premiering Sunday as the start of Global Voices‘ new season on the PBS WORLD digital channel, does its best to keep up with Brody. As he works to bring Habré to trial, the camera trots behind him or listens in on phone conversations that provide some backstory. Chief among these is Brody’s decision not to take a job with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour (a job he notes would secure his child’s education, among other things), in order to ensure that the Habré case goes forward: “I really would have liked to work with you,” he sighs, before moving on to the next challenge posed by Habré’s lawyers, one of whom appears here, clownishly calling his client a “calm man” and suggesting that legal actions might be better taken against Gaddafi.
The suggestion is partly comic, partly ironic, and underscores the fundamental problem facing Brody and Human Rights Watch, namely, that this specific case is only the tip of an vast and ugly iceberg. First, the former warlord Habré has a fairly typical relationship with the U.S. (in 1981, Ronald Reagan used him to beat back Muammar el-Gaddafi, then helped to finance his secret police, the DDS, which tortured and killed opponents). And second, current legal and governmental bodies worry that opening this particular doorway — to prosecution of national leaders (deposed or sitting) for such crimes as torture, unjustifiable incarcerations, and genocide — will put others at risk of same. And so, despite the evidence and witnesses against Habré, the case is slow going.
Brody’s dedication is matched by that of Souleymane Guengueng, founder and vice president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP). A civil servant arrested and jailed by the DDS, Guengueng was tortured by lights shined directly in his eyes (he nearly went blind) and the “arbatachar” method (“My arms tied behind my back to stop the blood circulating and paralyze one’s arms and legs”). He also saw hundreds of fellow prisoners die of abuse and disease. At the time of filming, he’s living in New York City, two years removed from his wife and 10 children back in Chad. Unable to find work, Guengueng spends his time seeing a doctor who checks his eyesight and asks a question about his emotional state, which is understandably distressed (his rent and food are provided, he says, by “a friend”). In an English class, Guengueng is treated as something of a celebrity, welcomed by teacher and students, who also shout out the highlights of New York City: “Hard Rock Café! Pennsylvania Station!”
While such scenes suggest that Guengueng is making his own way in his new life, however lonely, he remains linked to Brody, who visits Guengueng’s wife in Chad (she notes the hardship of raising all these kids alone, he brings with him a bedroom lamp for one of the children that features the Manhattan skyline, featuring the Twin Towers). Brody and Guengueng also make journeys together, including one to see Congressman Gregory Simpson. He assures them that he and his fellow legislators want to “come up with a way to try dictators who have committed, if not genocide, then crimes against humanity.” Mm-hmm. Guengueng lays out the stakes:
On behalf of the survivors and victims of the tortures we ask the question: who guarantees the international conventions that are supposed to protect the people when those countries as powerful as the United States don’t even take a little look at what’s going on and respect what you have promised. Who would protect humanity?
As he leaves Simpson’s office, Brody’s voiceover notes that while they were promised the Congressmen would write letters to Senegal and the African Union, “they never did.” When the Belgian court where they have filed their case against Habré concludes it has no jurisdiction, Brody and Guengueng move on to the African Union (“We know that they’ll never let an African leader be tried in a European court,” Brody says). On the opening day of the AU conference, Brody watches nefarious leaders file in to the Sheraton like movie stars, noting who’s who and offering thumbnail assessments, there’s Gaddafi himself (Brody jumps up excitedly as he passes), alongside Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who “wants to get the African countries in the nuclear tug of war with the U.S.”
All the interests at the conference can’t be accommodated, of course, but Brody hopes the evidence he’s assembled will convince the dictators and presidents to worry at least about how they’ll look to the rest of the world if they allow Habré to live out his days in luxury. The body decides that Senegal will conduct the trial, though, as Brody notes near film’s end, this doesn’t mean the trial will ever begin. His frustration does not stop him, however, and neither does it dissuade Guengueng. “The battle I am fighting now should help me get rid of my nightmares,” he says, his face scarred and strong as he contemplates a future comprised of small steps forward. “I am no longer afraid of dying.”
Since the film’s release in 2007, some of these steps have occurred. On 15 August 2008, a Chadian court sentenced Habré to death in absentia. And in September of that year, 14 more victims of Habrés abuses filed new complaints with a Senegalese prosecutor, putting still more pressure on that government to do what it is legally bound to do.