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Reed Brody, My Life As A Despot Hunter

For the past 30 years, the American lawyer has been hunting down former despots all over the world. The trial of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, which opened last month, is the latest fruit of his work.

Reed Brody in front of a portrait of Hissene Habre
Reed Brody in front of a portrait of Hissene Habre
Christophe Boltanski

NEW YORK — Surrounded by Chadian soldiers, Reed Brody makes his way up the front steps of an abandoned colonial building in the center of N'Djamena, Chad's capital city. He glances at the bare dirt-stained walls, then lowers his head. He walks through a sea of paperwork. He bends down, picks up a sheet of paper, then another, turns his back on the soldiers, and surreptitiously shoves a bundle in his briefcase.

Everywhere, the ground is strewn with police records, prisoner lists, reports with "Republic of Chad — Documentation and Security Directorate" (DDS) headers. "We'll bring boxes over and put all this at your disposal," an official dressed in a suit and tie offers him. The American lawyer opens his eyes wide: "Really?"

Brody doesn't fully realize yet, but he's just stumbled upon a formerly top-secret building that contains a treasure trove of information regarding the regime of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré.

It was May 2001 and Brody is deep into investigating for Human Rights Watch the alleged crimes of the despot who was overthrown nearly 11 years earlier by his former chief of defense, Idriss Déby. As part of a documentary for the French-German television network Arte, he had asked to see the "pool," a symbol of the dictatorship. A former swimming pool — hence its name — covered with a concrete screed that, under the previous reign, served as a torture chamber. A horrendous place with its tiny cells, in which prisoners died by the hundreds, and its sloping floor that allowed for the disposal of blood and urine.

To be able to go down into the cells, located just next to the presidential residence and still firmly guarded, Brody had to devise a ploy. "We told a former prisoner that we wanted to film the exact place where he was tortured. He obtained the authorization easily because, beyond the fact that he was the head of the only victims' association, he was also Déby's cousin," the filmmaker Pierre Hazan explains.

When he left the "pool," Brody noticed another abandoned building. "I asked to visit it," he says today. "I didn't know it was the former headquarters of the DDS," the political police apparatus of a regime that is blamed for the death of nearly 40,000 Chadians.

The importance of the discovery starts to dawn on him. "It's a real goldmine here!" Brody shouts on camera. The archives under his feet form an extremely large amount of incriminating evidence against Hissène Habré and his death machine.

Brody has what he came for, and more. But what the now 62-year-old attorney doesn't know at the time is that it would take another 14 years — and countless hours of gathering testimonies, building cases, calling up opinions, filing complaints, pleading to judges and governments — before he could put all that evidence to use, before Habré would finally see the inside of a courtroom.

That day finally came on July 20, in Dakar, Senegal, where the former Chadian president went before the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court created by the African Union (AU), to answer to accusations of "war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity." A historic trial. For the first time, Africa, on its own land and in the name of universal jurisdiction, was going to judge one of its own heads of state. The next day, judges adjourned Habré's case to Sep. 7 to enable appointed lawyers to prepare the ex-leader's defense.

Warlords and tyrants

Reed Brody is a dictator hunter. Tacked to the world map that covers one of the walls of his office, on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, in New York, are pictures of his prey: Augusto Pinochet (Chile); Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti), Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay), Pol Pot (Cambodia), Suharto (Indonesia), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan) — a who's who of warlords, generals, tyrants, rais, dear leaders, number one comrades that, beyond their ideological differences, have all oppressed and massacred their fellow countrymen.

The lawyer is also the author of four reports condemning the abuses committed by the American army in the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons, as well as a book called Faut-il juger George Bush? (Should George Bush be Tried?, based on a HRW report entitled Getting Away With Torture). His aim? To put an end to impunity, which he defines with wit: "If you kill someone, you go to jail. But if you're responsible for the death of 40,000 people, you're invited to a peace conference."

Brody likes to say that he's always been on the side of the "good guys," even at the start of his career, when he was the assistant attorney general of the state of New York, in 1980. "I was in charge of consumer protection," he says. "I closed down fraudulent companies."

The turning point came in 1984, during a stay in Nicaragua, which, at the time, was in the midst of a revolution. He visited the brother of a colleague, a missionary in a village near Honduras, and listened to priests describing the attacks launched from the border by the contras, a counter-revolutionary force backed by the CIA.

"To make the people rise against the government, they destroyed crops, slit people's throats. I decided to do something," Brody recalls.

For five months, he gathered hundreds of testimonies across the entire region. His report made the front page of The New York Times. Then President Ronald Reagan, who had just compared the contras to the "founding fathers of America," called Brody a "Sandinista agent." A few months later, Congress cut funds to the Contra rebels.

Pursuing Pinochet

The young man then chose to dedicate himself to the defense of human rights. His investigations led him to Haiti, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Congo. In 1998, he joined Human Rights Watch and began his career as a dictator hunger in earnest.

His first target was Pinochet, the Chilean general who ran the country for 17 years before finally surrendering power in 1990. Sheltered from any legal action at home, the ex-tyrant who became a lifelong senator was the subject of several complaints filed in Madrid. When the then 82-year-old Pinochet passed through London, in 1998, British police arrested him and placed him on house arrest under an international mandate emitted by the Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón.

In 1999, after an interminable procedure, the Britain's House of Lords refused to grant the old general immunity. Pinochet, nevertheless, was able to escape by using his poor health as a pretext. Tony Blair's staff sent him back home. It was a semi-victory for Reed Brody, who had argued for months before the high judicial body of the kingdom to obtain Pinochet's extradition to Spain.

"At the time, I said the Lords' decision was a warning signal for all dictators. We became aware we had a legal tool to bring those who seemed out of reach to justice," Brody recalls.

While he was at it, he engaged in legal proceedings against other retired despots: the Haitian Jean-Claude Duvalier, the Ugandan Idi Amin Dada, the Ethiopian Mengistu.

Habré"s exile in Sengal

The Chilean case proved victims could make any dictator stagger. "Chadians came to us because of the Pinochet case," the American lawyer says. "They wanted us to help them take Hissène Habré to court."

Habré ruled over Chad from 1982 to 1990 in a manner that was as brutal as the country's desert scrubland. He was a Paris Institute of Political Studies graduate who turned into a revolutionary, with dark sunglasses and Cuban cap; a former deputy prefect who, with obsessive attention, organized executions and torture, and later became an ally for France and the U.S. against Gaddafi's Libya.

Abandoned by his patrons in 1990, Habré fled with the cash — tens of millions of francs, enough to guarantee him a golden exile and buy a few allies.

Chad's new president, Idriss Déby, promised justice for the families of Habré"s many victims. But nothing much happened. Many torturers still occupy high positions in the state apparatus. The report of a short-lived inquiry commission on the former regime's abuses? Vanished. The only loophole: Hissène Habré found refuge in Senegal, one of the rare democracies in the region.

Souleymane Guengueng, a torture survivor, founded an association with other survivors and collected hundreds of testimonies, files that he carefully buried in his garden in N'Djamena. In 1999, he unearthed them and passed them on to Human Rights Watch.

"We secretly transported the paperwork to New York and filed a complaint in January 2000 at a Dakar court," Reed Brody says. A month later, a Senegalese judge charged Habré and placed him under house arrest. "We thought there'd be a trial immediately."

But thanks to his fortune, Habré had lots of support in Senegal, especially within the circle of the new head of state, Abdoulaye Wade. Two lawyers of the former Chadian leader would even take jobs in Wade's government. During his 12 years in power, the Senegalese president blocked everything.

"He wanted to control everything"

This is why victims took to the Belgian judiciary and mounted a case based on the precept of universal jurisdiction, which holds that crimes against humanity and torture are not protected by borders. Brody transferred the thousands of documents found at the ODS headquarters to the inquiry.

Some of the evidence is highly incriminating. Several are annotated by his hand. Next to a transfer demand at the hospital of agonizing prisoners, he wrote: "This is out of the question. No one should leave, except in the case of death." Every evening, police officers sent him that day's body count. "He checked every detail," according to Brody. "He wanted to control everything."

In Chad, Habré loyalists have counterattacked. Jacqueline Moudeïna, the victims' Chadian lawyer, was injured by a grenade during a peaceful demonstration in N'Djamena. Souleymane Guengueng was also threatened and had to exile himself to the United States.

Still, the investigation continued, and in 2005, Belgium demanded the extradition of the former tyrant. But Abdoulaye Wade continued to protect Habré. Finally, in 2012, Wade was voted out of office. Before that, Brody, his team and the Chadian association had spent years trying to influence public opinion in Senegal, forging ties with the media and opposition forces. Now, their efforts were rewarded. Shortly after taking office, Senegal's new president, Macky Sall, announced that Habré would be tried in Dakar.

Brody hopes the trial will be broadcast in Chad and, most importantly, that it will encourage other African countries to confront their own violent pasts. "Victims must never give up," he repeats. "You have to push, push and one day doors will open."

Who will be the next dictator in the dock? Two names immediately come to his mind: "Yahia Jammeh," a military man who has been in power in Gambia since 1994, and "of course Robert Mugabe," in Zimbabwe, the oldest African dictator, says Brody.

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