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It was a bad week for dictators, and a good one for international justice. Two brutal, U.S.-backed dictators who ruled decades ago were convicted for crimes they committed while in power. Hissene Habre took control of the northern African nation of Chad in 1982, and unleashed a reign of terror against his own people, killing at least 40,000 of them, until he was deposed in 1990. Reynaldo Bignone was a general in the Argentinian military, and was the last dictator of the military junta that ruled that country from 1976 to 1983, the period known as “The Dirty War,” when an estimated 30,000 dissidents were “disappeared,” i.e., killed. Both men will most likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. These verdicts won’t bring back the tens of thousands they tortured and killed, but, hopefully, they will hasten the end of the modern era of impunity for human-rights abusers and their allies.
Bignone’s guilty verdict for his role in the transnational “Operation Condor” conspiracy was not his first. He was one of the Argentine generals who overthrew that country’s government in 1976. Bignone took a lead role in setting up and running several of the hundreds of secret detention centers where people suspected of communist or left-wing sympathies were taken and, in most cases, tortured, then killed. Argentina in those years was led by a succession of military dictators, with Bignone being the last in the line, ruling from 1982 to 1983. Bignone oversaw the destruction of documents and other evidence that might have implicated him and his fellow junta members in human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity, and also granted blanket immunity to himself and others, protecting them from future prosecution. Eventually, the amnesty was overturned, and Bignone was convicted in 2010 for the rampant kidnapping, torture and murder he oversaw.
Bignone’s most recent guilty verdict was for his role in Operation Condor, in which six U.S.-backed South American dictatorships – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay – conspired to track down and kidnap or kill dissidents anywhere in the world. Bignone, 88, now has an additional 20 years added to the life sentence he is currently serving. Operation Condor was coordinated out of Chile, then under dictator Augusto Pinochet, and with the knowledge of the U.S. government, and in particular, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Chad is a mostly desert country in northern Africa that was under French colonial rule from 1900 to 1960. Sectarian warfare followed. U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported a coup in Chad, led by Hissene Habre, despite knowing his record of brutality. Habre had a mass grave behind his residence. He ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, and he terrorized his critics, both real and imagined. More than 40,000 people were killed, many tortured in the notorious “Piscine,” or “the Pool,” a prison and torture center located in a converted swimming pool.
In 2001, 11 years after Habre fled to Senegal (taking most of Chad’s national treasury with him), an intrepid attorney with Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, entered the abandoned headquarters of Habre’s notorious secret police force, the DDS. What he found there was astounding: thousands upon thousands of documents, dust-covered and forgotten, that detailed arrests, torture and killing of more than 13,000 of Habre’s victims. This documentary evidence, along with unrelenting organizing among the victims themselves, by people like prison survivor Souleymane Guengueng, led to the first trial in an African nation of a former head of state from another African nation. In the past, such trials have taken place in international tribunals, outside of the continent. Senegal formed a special court specifically to try his case.
“It hurts me that many of my colleagues died along the way. They could not be here to see the result, which is why I was moved and brought to tears,” Souleymane Guengueng said after the verdict was read. “Hissene Habre was sentenced to life imprisonment. He will finish off his life in prison, and that’s all we wanted. I hope this serves as a lesson to all the other dictators out there.”
Bignone and the Argentine junta, and Hissene Habre, could not have committed their atrocities were it not for the support of the U.S. government. Secretary of State John Kerry called Habre’s verdict “an opportunity for the United States to reflect on, and learn from, our own connection with past events in Chad.” The U.S. should definitely reflect on, and learn from, these guilty verdicts. But we also should investigate, charge and put on trial U.S. government officials who aided and abetted these dictators. We need a uniform standard of justice, applied equally, across the globe.