What does it take to make a dictator answer for his crimes? Hissène Habré, the former despot of Chad, terrorized, tortured, and killed on a horrific scale while enjoying full American and Western support. After his overthrow, his victims and their supporters were determined to see Habré held responsible for his atrocities. They faced an uphill battle but ultimately succeeded. To Catch a Dictator is a dramatic insider’s account of the hunt for Habré and his momentous trial. In this Q&A, the human rights lawyer Reed Brody openly talks about his experience bringing Habré to trial, how the concept of “universal jurisdiction” might be used to bring other dictators to justice, and what he would have done differently.
Q: Bringing Hissène Habré to justice took more than sixteen years. Why what it important to tell that story in a book?
Reed Brody: Over and over, people told us that we had to be either naive or crazy. Other African despots would never let Habré stand trial, they said; his former backers in the United States and France would never stand for it either. I wrote the book to show not only that we weren’t crazy but that there is nothing inevitable about brutal tyrants going unpunished for their crimes. It’s a particularly important message today as we grapple with how to hold Vladimir Putin to account for war crimes in Ukraine.
Q: You begin and end your story with Souleymane Guengueng. What made you choose his story as your lens?
Brody: Souleymane, a deeply religious civil servant, watched hundreds of his cellmates die from torture and disease during two years in Habré’s prisons. From the depth of that madness, Souleymane took an oath before God that if he ever got out of jail alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. When he did get out, a walking skeleton, he inspired other victims to join him. Because of Souleymane’s activism, he was fired from his job, threatened, and forced into exile. But he never gave up. He is the backbone of the story.
Q: Who else do we meet in the book?
Brody: The book is full not just of heroes but of assassins, presidents, and scoundrels: Hissène Habré, of course; Ronald Reagan, who put Habré in power; Francois Mitterrand, who supported Habré until he found out Habré was making secret deals with the United States; a torturer who couldn’t live with his conscience; Senegal’s leading religious caliph, who told me he was sworn to protect Habré; President Idriss Déby of Chad, who despised Habré but feared a trial would expose his own crimes; President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, who kept telling us he’d allow a trial while effectively blocking the case for twelve years.
Q: How did you get involved in the Habré case?
Brody: In 1998 when the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was arrested in England on a warrant from a Spanish judge for crimes committed in Chile. I went to London to work on the case. When the British House of Lords upheld Pinochet’s arrest, we saw that we could use international justice to bring to book tyrants who had made themselves immune from justice, at least at home. And I was approached by a Chadian activist, Delphine Djiraibe, who said “we have someone who killed many more people than Pinochet, and he lives in Senegal now, can you help us do what the Chileans are doing?”
Q: Why was it important to try Habré in Africa?
Brody: I got involved in the Habré case precisely because he was in Africa, in Senegal. We wanted to show that African courts could deliver justice for African crimes, that it didn’t need always to happen in Europe. When Senegal blocked us for many years, we tried to get Habré extradited to Belgium, but the fact that he was ultimately prosecuted in Africa, rather than in a former colonial power, gave the case much more legitimacy in Africa.
Q: What do you think the legacy of the Habré trial will be?
Brody: The Habré trial shows that it is possible for victims and their allies, with tenacity and perseverance, to bring a dictator to court. In a case that looked dead so many times, Souleymane and the others made it clear that they were never going away until they got justice. And—just as the Chadians approached us to do what the Chilean victims had done in the Pinochet case—I am now working with Gambian victims of former dictator Yahya Jammeh who looked at Habré’s victims and said “we can do that too.”
Q: You succeeded in bringing a dictator to trial, something the International Criminal Court has never done. How do you explain that?
Brody: In two decades and at a cost of almost two billion dollars, the ICC has never sustained the atrocity conviction of any state official at any level anywhere in the world. The only defendants convicted by the ICC of international crimes have been five African rebels. There are many reasons we were able to do better, but one key was putting the victims and their stories at the center of the action. We got four documentaries made about the case, and the victims were all over the press. Souleymane’s story is known across Africa. He was able to personally move officials around the world, bring tears to their eyes in a way an ICC prosecutor never could, indeed, in a way that I never could, and that is what created the political conditions for the trial.
Q: The Habré case was the first time a former head of state was prosecuted in another country using “universal jurisdiction.” How can that principle be applied in Ukraine?
Brody: “Universal jurisdiction” says that some crimes are so heinous that they can be tried in the courts of any country. It’s international law’s answer to the spectacle of tyrants and torturers who cover themselves with immunity at home. A dozen countries have already opened investigations into crimes in Ukraine under this principle. Obviously, getting hold of Putin will be challenging, but “universal jurisdiction” can and will be used against any Russian officer who travels.
Q: What other lessons does the Habré case hold for the efforts to hold Russian officials accountable?
Brody: Go to every court possible, tell the victims’ stories and never give up—there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. And get documents, which are the king and queen of proof. I was lucky enough to find the abandoned files of Habré’s political police, thousands of documents, including ones with Habré’s own handwriting, showing that he ordered or was kept informed about all the atrocities. That will be critical for any case against Putin or other higher-ups.
Q: You are also involved in cases against “MBS,” the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Where do those stand?
Brody: Saudi Arabia pressured Turkey, where the crime occurred, to drop its prosecution, but we filed a criminal case in France this summer when the prince visited President Macron, which is still in an early stage, and a civil case in the United States. Saudi Arabia is trying to pressure the Biden administration to intervene to get our case thrown out, and it recently named MBS as prime minister in a transparent eleventh-hour ploy to win sovereign immunity. The world’s embrace of the crown prince after he was caught red-handed in the Khashoggi murder is exhibit A in what I call in the book “an age of impunity.”
Q: Why were the Obama administration and Secretary Hillary Clinton willing to press for Habré’s trial even though it might expose U.S. complicity in Habré’s crimes?
Brody: I guess they saw that as ancient history, The United States is always more ready than France to disown its past, at least when there’s no cost in doing so. A bigger challenge was to get the United States to support a case based on “universal jurisdiction,” which even Democratic administrations have challenged when it’s used against Americans abroad. But we built support over the years. Souleymane and I made a lot of trips to Washington.
Q: What has been the impact of the war in Ukraine on international justice?
Brody: Russia’s naked aggression in Ukraine and its flagrant war crimes have now created a “Ukraine moment” in international justice. But it has also again exposed its double standards. The unprecedented mobilization of the ICC and so many states for Ukraine is heartwarming and illustrates how justice can function when the political will exists. But what about Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Palestine, Yemen? The ICC prosecutor’s office has opened its biggest investigation ever in Ukraine, but if it is not to be seen as just the legal arm of NATO, it has to devise an equally robust response in other situations it is supposed to be investigating.
Q: Is there anything you think you did wrong in the Habré case or that you would do differently if you could?
Brody: Let me count! I would have focused on sexual violence must sooner. The biggest bombshell at the trial were that Habré used women and girls as sexual slaves and that he even raped one woman himself. But it almost didn’t happen because the survivors only opened up to us—including their Chadian women lawyers—when it was finally clear Habré would really stand trial. After the trial, Patricia Sellers, a leader in international gender justice, told me, “Sexual violence is always there, you just have to look for it.” In Gambia, we quickly learned that Yahya Jammeh had organized a state system to bring women to him. Among those willing to tell the world that Jammeh had raped her was Toufah Jallow, a courageous national pageant queen who unflinchingly told her story on national television.