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Transcript Ep 1 – Justice on the Cheap, with Celeste Hicks

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Celeste Hicks

So, yes, I mean, there was something amazing in the fact that that trial confounded everybody’s expectations because most people just thought it was a lost cause.

[INTRO TUNE]

Justice plays an important role.

I consider this tribunal a false tribunal and indictments, false indictments.

Such abhorrent crimes should not go unpunished.

Proceedings will be long and complex.

All rise.

Janet H. Anderson

Here we are at Humanity Hub, this is Asymmetrical Haircuts. It’s me Janet Anderson.

Stephanie van den Berg

And me, Stephanie van den Berg.

Janet H. Anderson

And we’ve been really lucky today to draw in Celeste Hicks. Hi Celeste!

Celeste Hicks

Hi! How’re you doing?

Janet H. Anderson

We’re fine. We’re here going to talk about your book, which is the book as far as we know about the Habré trial. The former dictator of Chad who was put on trial in Senegal and has got the whole International Justice world buzzing with this, as an idea, as a way of going forward, as an alternative to some of the other mechanisms that we have around. Just let’s have a reality check. What do you know about the Habré trial? Stephanie?

Stephanie van den Berg

Well, I’m kind of cheating because I lived for two years in Senegal, so I’m quite up to date with the Habré trial. But I’m probably one of the few in the kind of international news agency world who is really focused on this. I am kind of curious, because I know it’s went on and I’m very curious to know, Celeste, because it’s being touted as this solution, whether it really worked?

Janet H. Anderson 

Let’s just start though by asking Celeste to introduce yourself properly, to kind of establish what her expertise is in this area. You’re a Chad person?

Celeste Hicks

Yeah, I’m a freelance journalist. I worked for BBC World Service in Chad from 2008 to 2010. And then I came back to London and went back to the World Service. And people just kept asking me to write about Chad, really, because so few people know about it. And I realised that there was this fascinating country with so much stuff happening and no one knew anything. So I kept writing about Chad and then eventually went freelance and returned to Chad on many occasions as a freelancer. And this is actually my second book about Chad. My first one was about the oil industry there.

Janet H. Anderson

Okay, so why did you end up writing this book?

Celeste Hicks

Quite simply, it was just an amazing story. When I finished my first book, I swore I wasn’t going to write another book again. It’s not an easy thing to do. You don’t make any money from it. In fact, I still owe the publisher money. And it took a long time and it was stressful and really took over my life. I thought I don’t want to do this again. But as I watched the Habre trial unfold in Dakar and I went to visit several times during the trial, and I look back on the fact that I’ve been meeting people like Souleymane Guenggueng, Clément Abaïfouta and Jacqueline Moudeina for years. 

Janet H. Andeson

Those are some of the main organisers of the victims? Those three.

Celeste Hicks

Yes, so Souleymane is the main guy that set up the victims organisation, and Jacqueline is the lawyer, the Chadian lawyer that represented them. I realised I just had this back catalogue of knowledge that I’m quite sure nobody else apart from Reed Brody had.

Janet H. Anderson

Reed Brody, dictator hunter!

[LAUGHTER]

Celeste Hicks

Yes, Reed Brody, dictator hunter. Yeah.

Janet H. Anderson

Human Rights Watch backed him to really get this trial going.

Celeste Hicks

Yeah. Reed’s involvement in the trial was amazing. And he used everything, every resource available to him, Human Rights Watch, to find a way to keep the trial on track. And so he, I mean, he has the institutional memory much better than I do. But I’m so really I was just captivated by the strength of the story and the personal stories involved in it.

Janet H. Anderson

OK, so the personal stories of victims, or the story of the fact that this trial was happening at all? I mean, what was it? 

Celeste Hicks

It was both. I mean, when I was in Chad in 2008, Reed used to email me and say, “oh, we’re having a meeting of the victims association, you know, would you like to come along?” And, you know, I’d say, okay, and I’d go and I’d look at them. And I thought, well, how is this ever going to happen? Habré is in his 70s? In Dakar? He’s been protected by the Senegalese government. Nobody’s making a serious attempt to try him. But Reed kept going, and the victims kept going. 
So, yes, I mean, there was something amazing in the fact that that trial confounded everybody’s expectations because most people just thought it was a lost cause.And so the fact that it happened was amazing, but also just the fact that it was the victims that did it, you know. People like Souleymane started collecting stories of people that had been tortured in the 80s. [He] just had basically a box of stories, handwritten stories, in his house in Chad, from the early 1990s. And somehow that box got smuggled out of the airport and given to Reed in New York, and it was really just extremely hands-on, grassroots movement for justice. And the tenacity of those people like Souleymane and Clément and Jacqueline fighting really… 25 years they fought for justice. You can’t you can’t dismiss that, like, I’m not sure you would see parallel determination in it in every place. So it was just, it just, it would have to be told.

Janet H. Anderson

And getting back to Stephanie’s question, sort of, it was about whether this is the future?

Stephanie van den Berg

There was a big push made, if this is being justice for the Africans, and also supported by the African Union, and coincided with the kind of neo-colonial criticism of the ICC, that that’s kind of Western justice inflicted on Africans. And the Habre trial would kind of show, how, that Africans can do this themselves, and that it’s African justice for African people. And I’m wondering how much of that came through and mostly how it was felt in Chad as being closer to them than something international or that it still felt very far away from victims?

Celeste Hicks

You’ve basically answered the question. I mean, that is how it was framed. And I had to wrestle quite a lot with this question as I was writing it. The fact that it did coincide with the criticisms of the ICC, the Kenyatta trial, or the attempts to try Kenyatta and then the indictment of Omar al Bashir. And there was a lot of kind of pseudo-narrative going on about this being alternative. But actually, if you, when I went back and looked at when things had happened, it really was actually just a coincidence that it happened at that time. And it easily could not have happened. And so I think, you know, once you sort of disentangle those two things, it looks a little bit different. 
It was absolutely an example of the African Union can do it, if it wants to do it. And once everybody had made the political conditions possible, and once Macky Sall in Senegal had decided that he wanted to do it, they did pull a finger out. And it was a very successful trial. And it got a verdict. And it cost around $10 million. And it was over. And you know, that the whole phase, the witness phase and the trial phase, and then the verdict was all within a year. So it was very quick, very cheap, and it got a verdict. 
I mean, the question then becomes, would they do it again, in other circumstances? And that’s when it becomes a little bit more difficult. I mean, Habré was really quite a special case. He was extremely isolated. He had been out of power for 25 years. Although there’s a small element of people in Chad who still support him, there was never any risk that there was going to be any destabilisation from Habre being tried and put in jail that you might have, in situations like Gambia, for example, where there’s still a lot of people related to Yahya Jammeh in positions of power. And there’s still a lot of rawness and tension in society. And so, you know, you have to take all of those factors into consideration. 

It’s certainly the EAC, which tried Habré, is certainly a model which could be dusted off, if you like. But obviously, every situation is going to have different requirements.

Stephanie van den Berg

And the reason this only worked in Senegal was also because there was a power change in Senegal.

Celeste Hicks

Yeah. 

Stephanie van den Berg

And as you said, Macky Sall, the new president, was less inclined to protect Habre than his predecessor, who protected him for many years and kept him in his nice villa in Senegal.

Janet H. Anderson

So the politics surrounding it also matters very much as well.

Stephanie van den Berg

As with every international court, whoever they get is who they can get politically at that point.

Celeste Hicks

Well, I mean, exactly that. And I’m a journalist, I have no legal background. I did I, you know, I read about all the big international cases just as a as a media consumer. So I’d never really thought about these issues. And I came to that conclusion and realise that actually, yes, that is kind of what it is. You have to pick your cases, don’t you? You have to pick the ones you’re going to win.
And you know, I suppose when I started writing the book, I was of the impression that perhaps there was some kind of like, you know, a paradigm of perfect International Justice that would apply and that would have, like, rules that work for everything. And then the Habré case, writing about that just showed me… yeah… you just get who you can get.

[LAUGHTER]

Janet H. Anderson

We have very wry smiles on our faces as you’re talking at the moment, as this is part of what we have to spend our time looking at this, the whole issue of getting who you can get at this point, and how those decisions are made.

Stephanie van den Berg

I do think that the important thing here is to not only Reed Brody and all his Human Rights Watch, and the man who brought [name] to justice. That was also a lot of Reed Brody.He really put his weight behind it. But it would never have been possible without indeed the victims who put this issue on the map time and time again.
And when I was Dakar in 2009, and 2010, they would give press conferences every time and every time I think almost Habré moved from his villa, they would show up, so you really couldn’t go around them. 
So it’s also a case of the you know, that kind of storey of the you have to be the friendly dinosaur. When you want to people on the airline to change your tickets. You have to kind of sit in the waiting room smile, and not go away. So you become their problem. 

Janet H. Anderson

So you’re comparing the victims to that. To just keeping on going?

Stephanie van den Berg

Keeping on going, being very friendly, being very respectful and keeping hammering that this has to happen, but also by just not going away. By being very visible.

Celeste Hicks

Yeah. Yeah, they were very visible. And even in the trial, they were incredibly visible. They were sitting at the front of the court, you know. It was almost as if the weight of the court was kind of looking, it was centred on them. You know, the judge was looking down directly onto them. They were able to get up and make presentations to the court. And Habre was kind of on the other side. Because he was so silent and he didn’t move and didn’t talk, it was almost as if he wasn’t there half the time. And it really just became the actual court process, it became about the victims.

Janet H. Anderson

Why don’t you just remind us what the name of the book is, and where we can find it?

Celeste Hicks

The book is called the Trial of Hissene Habre. Very simply. And the subtitle is Bringing a Tyrant to Justice. It’s published by ZED books, and you can find it on the ZED Books website. But it’s also on Amazon. And it’s in a number of book shops in the UK. I’m not sure if it’s in any book shops in The Hague, but maybe I could send you some copies.

[LAUGHTER]

Janet H. Anderson

Okay. So we have a couple of questions that we always ask our podcast guests. What do people never ask you that they should be asking you?

Celeste Hicks

I think one of the things that always surprises me that no one asks is the process of how one goes about getting stories. And how much time and effort it takes to physically get yourself to the places where you need to get the stories. And I’m talking here at particularly the freelancer, financing trips, and organising that and getting in touch with NGOs and trying to persuade them to give you a room in some random corner of somewhere or ringing the WFP and seeing if you can squeeze onto one of their a-delivery flights, so you can get to the place. It is that sort of logistics side of it and the process involved… I don’t even know what people would think in terms of how you would get the stories, but I think sometimes they just… people seem to think they just magically appear. So I’m always surprised that nobody asks me more about that.

Stephanie van den Berg

I think especially in Africa. This is a thing that nobody really figures out how long it takes you to get from A to B. And they look at the map, even editors, and be like “you could be there in an hour!” Yes, if it had German highways, possibly, yeah. 

Celeste Hicks

Yeah.

Stephanie van den Berg

What’s the biggest mistake people make about your work or the biggest… What [do] people get wrong when they talk about what you do?

Celeste Hicks

I think lots of people don’t even know where Chad is. They don’t know anything about Chad. And I mean it in many ways Chad kind of conforms to some of the stereotypes that people have about Africa. It has been this kind of war ravaged place, you know. Like hot and dry and underdeveloped. But I think then, you know, there’s, they don’t always kind of understand the complexity of the societies. And actually, although I found it very difficult to live in Chad, and it was hard, I also found once I broke through the kind of getting past a lot of this sort of first interactions you have with people there were the sort of warmest, funniest, kind of like most loyal people you could imagine. And also just the most ridiculously hard and determined people. I mean, obviously people like Clément and Jacqueline, they’ve been fighting for 25 years… and you know, Reed has said this as well, like, if you, once you become their friend, you know, they will always be your friend. They’re not people who will just, you know, be involved for the sake of the story at that point. And Reed still sees them regularly. And they even though it’s all over now, they still are in touch with him all the time. So I think people from the outside just tend to dismiss places like Chad just as a kind of like backward places, where people don’t have complex emotional life and personal relationships and things that are important to them. They just kind of don’t… they see people in a very one dimensional way.

Janet H. Anderson

And finally, do you have any specific book or movie or thing that you’ve seen that really changed the way that you do your work?

Celeste Hicks

On the Habré story, I mean, it was a film called The Dictator Hunter, which everybody knows. You referred to it before. And it’s a film about when Reed Brody went to Chad, and I think in like 2001 or 2002, he looks a lot younger on the film so it’s quite a long time ago. And the film is basically of…, and I don’t think they even realised it was happening or even as they were filming it, but they walked into what was once one of Habre’s former prisons, and they kind of just they filmed him walking in and they just sort of like push this door back. And then they find documents of all the…, basically prison documents from this place, which was a torture centre. And the Chadeans had kept these immaculate records of what had happened to all the people they tortured. Their names, their ages, where they lived and what they did to them and whether they died or not. And then they just dumped them on…, they must have been in a filing cabinet and over the years at fallen over and they were just on the floor. So there’s this point where Reed just walks in and trips over these thousands of documents on the floor of all the stories of people that were tortured by Habre. You just… it was just such a Chadean moment because it was this kind of like…. the complexity of this society where people did document everything and wrote it all down. Like I was saying, you know, people think Chad, they can’t even write and Chad and you know, they’re so backwards. But actually, they did written down in this like perfect filing system, everything that happened. And then they’ve just left it in a drawer and ran away and it had fallen over and nobody’s ever gone to tidy up. It was just that just really resonated with me like, yeah, the sort of the complexity of Habre’s system and how brutal and ruthless and targeted it had been. But also just kind of once he’d gone and he’d left power, it was just like it evaporated. And I found that image really powerful. And yeah, that was one of the things that sort of… and I was glad that film existed because I was able to refer to it in the book when it was gaps in what happened around that time. So yeah, that was probably the one that sort of made me realise that there was something great in this story.

Stephanie van den Berg

Thanks for coming! I really have a new view on the Habré trial. So my big question is really, how is this outcome now seen in Chad? They had the trial. It was for International Justice standards, this was a coup, it was cheap, it was done by Africans. That is… everybody was heard. There is a verdict. But how did the victims really see it? Are they happy with the outcome? Did they feel that their stories were actually told at trial?

Celeste Hicks

I think broadly, it was seen as a success in Chad. Between the victims and also in the wider society. I did some research, like in the follow up to the trial. Because I was reading about other cases of International Justice there had been a criticism that nobody goes afterwards to see how people felt about, I mean, it was only like a year after the trial. So it wasn’t that long after. And I did some interviews with the victims and just literally random people on the street. Chad’s a very small place. So everybody did know about the trial. And everybody had kind of followed it in various ways. Maybe they’d heard about it through family, some people that actually watched it on TV. So I mean, for the victims, I would say yes, there was definitely an appreciation that they had told their story their suffering had been recognised. It had been put on the historical record what had happened to them. And they were definitely pleased that he was jailed. 
There was a few question marks around the fact that Habré never spoke at all during the trial. And I think some people felt frustrated about that, because they wanted to get answers. They wanted to understand what was going on and he denied them an explanation. And also, there was a few questions around the role of France and the United States in the 80s. Because they backed Habre during the 80s. They… there was ample evidence that they knew what he was up to, but they didn’t do anything. So there was… there were a lot of questions unanswered. 
But from my reading about other international trials, I think that’s also just what happens, you have to basically focus on the person that’s in the dock. There were also other co-accused tortures, who had actually carried out the torture, and they never came to court. And so there was a bit of disappointment that they weren’t also brought to justice. For the wider society in Chad, I think they a lot of people seemed proud that it happened. They were proud that Chadeans had been involved in it. They were… felt hopeful that, you know, former God… little God, that Habré was called in Chad, had been brought to justice. But I think there was also a sense of nothing’s actually changed in Chad, like, although Idriss Deby is not by any stretch of the imagination as bad as Habre was. There is still a serious democratic deficit in Chad and there’s still arbitrary arrests and detentions and economically, things haven’t gotten much better. There’s still a lot of tensions between different ethnic groups. So I think that although people were happy that Habre was dealt with, the wider questions about… kind of even judicial capacity within Chad, nothing has changed there. The courts in Chad still take forever and, you know, are corrupt and massively under-resourced. So, you know, I think it was everything you said about it is true in the sense that it was a good symbolic case. It got it got a verdict and that you can’t undermine that. But whether it had a wider impact on African justice or Chad itself or even in Senegal, and I’m not sure you can argue that too strongly.

Janet H. Anderson

Well, thanks very much, Celeste for coming along and joining our podcast. 

Celeste Hicks

Thanks for inviting me.

Janet H. Anderson

And so it’s goodbye from me, Janet Anderson. Here we are in Humanity Hub, and thank you very much to them for hosting us.

Stephanie van den Berg

And goodbye for me, Stephanie van den Berg and we hope you follow our podcast.

Stephanie van den Berg

[OUTRO]

This podcast was created and hosted by Janet Anderson and Stephanie van den Berg.

Music was by Audionautix.com. 

Our website is asymmetricalhaircuts.com.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was generated using online transcribing software, and checked and supplemented by the Asymmetrical Haircuts team. Because of this we cannot guarantee it is completely error free. Please check the corresponding audio for any errors before quoting.

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