Inside a Dictator's Secret Police

Eight years ago, Reed Brody stumbled upon the records of one of Africa's most brutal leaders, Chad's Hissène Habré. Now, two decades after he fell from power, Habré finally faces charges for his crimes -- if, that is, the trial actually happens.

For the two decades that he has been free, Souleymane Guengueng has constantly relived the two years he spent in a Chadian prison, where he watched hundreds of cellmates die from torture and disease. Thrown in jail in 1988 for still-unknown reasons, the deeply religious civil servant took an oath before God: If he ever got out alive, he would bring his tormentors to justice. So when the country's dictator fell in a 1990 coup and Guengueng walked out of prison, he used his considerable charm to persuade still-frightened victims to form an association and start preparing a case against their aggressor. But Chad's new government brought back many of the old henchmen and allowed the former tyrant -- Hissène Habré -- to live in quiet luxury in Senegal.

Now, 20 years later, Habré is finally facing trial in Senegal on charges of mass murder and torture. As a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, I've been involved for more than a decade with the case against him, which is based in large part on Guengueng's work compiling countless testimonies and an archive of police torture that I accidentally found in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, in 2002. It will be the first trial by the courts of one country against the former head of state of another. That is, if it actually takes place. Senegalese stalling tactics, including its $40 million budget request, are holding up the trial -- and until that changes, Souleymane Guengueng won't be the only Chadian still trapped in his country's brutal past.

Back in 1981, it would have been hard to imagine Habré where he is today. U.S. President Ronald Reagan saw the then-warlord as a bulwark against the ambitions of Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, Chad's expansionist neighbor to the north. Habré had already earned a reputation for extreme brutality, once kidnapping a French anthropologist and then murdering the officer sent to negotiate her release. But Washington could not pass up a chance to "bloody Qaddafi's nose," as Secretary of State Alexander Haig reportedly put it, and Habré's march on N'Djamena in 1982 was buoyed by generous covert U.S. support. Once he took over, the United States provided Habré with massive military aid and used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers as members of an anti-Qaddafi force. Habré served Washington's purpose; when the Libyans moved into northern Chad in the 1980s, Habré swiftly kicked them out. But Habré also turned his country into a police state, the legacy of which still lingers today under the current Chadian president, the man who ousted Habré, Idriss Déby.

When Habré was overthrown, he fled to Senegal, and at first, there seemed to be little hope of a reckoning for his crimes. But the 1998 London arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet buoyed the hopes of Chadian activists, including Guengueng. They asked Human Rights Watch, which participated in the Pinochet case, to assist Habré's victims. Eager to extend the "Pinochet precedent" to other tyrants, we helped Guengueng file charges against Habré in Senegal in January 2000, and a Dakar judge soon placed the former dictator under house arrest.

In the meantime, I had begun to make frequent trips to Chad to help build the case against Habré. And one day in 2002, I stumbled upon a gold mine: While visiting the abandoned headquarters of Habré's political police, the feared "DDS," I saw rooms with documents strewn over the floor a foot deep, covered with cobwebs. Bending down, I scooped up a file on a DDS detainee, then a report on rebel activity. Continuing through, I found lists of DDS prisoners, death certificates, interrogation reports, and identity cards. All the records of Habré's secret police were just sitting there, apparently unnoticed for over a decade. We had found a forgotten and disheveled, but meticulously detailed, archive of Chad's darkest period.

Habré had created the DDS by decree, ordering it to be "directly responsible to the Presidency." The force's tasks included creating files on anyone "suspected of activities contrary to or merely detrimental to the national interest." Armed with this broad mandate, the DDS rapidly became a fine-tuned instrument of repression. The four DDS directors who led the service during Habré's rule all came from the president's small Gorane ethnic group; one was his own nephew. In one unearthed memo, the DDS director proudly affirmed that the DDS, "thanks to the spider's web it has spun over the whole length of the national territory, keeps exceptional watch over the security of the State," as the "eyes and ears of the President of the Republic, whose control it is under and to whom it reports on its activities."

The documents often alluded to torture. A note concerning an alleged opposition activist stated slyly, "It was in compelling him to reveal certain truths that he died on October 14 at 8 o'clock." Another prisoner "only admitted certain facts that had been alleged against him after physical discipline was inflicted upon him." Many other documents discussed "muscular" or "heated" interrogations. Included in the files we dug up were documents about Guengueng's detention, though nothing of consequence.

A team from Guengueng's victims' association spent months putting these documents together, and we sent them on to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group at the Benetech Initiative, the "statisticians of the human rights movement." Just recently, Benetech gave us the first quantitative analysis of the crimes of the Habré regime. The documents mention 12,321 victims of abuse, including the death in detention of 1,208 of them. Habré himself received 1,265 direct communications from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees. The numbers are astonishing for a country estimated to have had just 5 million people in the 1980s.

Equally important for the legal case, Benetech's study of the document flow revealed that there was a direct superior-subordinate relationship between Habré and his secret police. In short, there's no plausible deniability. Habré knew exactly what was going on.

Habré used some of the millions he had stolen from Chad's treasury to build a web of protection in Senegal, and his influence weighed so heavily that, in a move denounced by the United Nations, the case in Senegal was thrown out in 2001. We then filed charges against Habré in Belgium, whose famous anti-atrocity law allows its courts to hear cases from all over the world. A Belgian judge carried out a landmark mission to Chad, picking up copies of the DDS documents. He also visited Habré's old prisons and mass graves with Guengueng and other former detainees.

In September 2005, the Belgian judge charged Habré with crimes against humanity and requested his extradition. Senegal turned to the African Union, which in 2006 instead called on Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa," and President Abdoulaye Wade declared that his country would. But Senegal has stalled for years, refusing to act until it receives a whopping $40 million from the international community, its estimate of the cost of the trial. While investigating and proving the alleged crimes committed by Habré's regime 20 years ago will certainly be complex and costly, there is no need, as Senegal has requested, to rebuild a courthouse or bring 500 witnesses. And in the meantime, survivors of Habré's regime are slowing passing away. Guengueng himself was forced to take exile in New York in 2005 after receiving threats from Habré's henchmen.

Senegal's foot-dragging has been such that Belgium took the unprecedented step last year of filing a case against Senegal with the International Court of Justice. Either put Habré on trial or extradite him, the suit argues. Now, with the help of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, there is another push to get the trial under way. U.S. War Crimes Ambassador Stephen Rapp met recently with African Union officials to work on resolving the roadblocks, including Senegal's budget request. A joint European Union-African Union team is scheduled to present a revised budget proposal and funding plan to Senegal soon, and Senegal has suggested that it will accept its plan.

Habré's trial would be a wake-up call to dictators in Africa and elsewhere that if they commit similar atrocities they could also be brought to justice one day. And for the detainee whose oath has driven his every move from 1990 until today, it would finally be a measure of justice.

Courtesy of Reed Brody


A Sorry Spectacle

The uninspiring saga of the United States' World Expo pavilion in Shanghai.

On May 1, Expo 2010, the largest and most expensive world's fair in history, will open on 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank for a six-month run that its hosts hope will help bolster the city's global reputation. Although largely overlooked by the American public, Expo 2010 has not been overlooked by the U.S. secretary of state's office: For more than a year, Hillary Clinton has spent considerable time and effort raising private money to pay for the construction of a U.S. pavilion to showcase American technology, culture, and achievement to the event's expected 90 million international attendees. Unfortunately, this particular effort at public diplomacy has faltered repeatedly; the behind-the-scenes saga may best be remembered for allegations of nepotism, frictions with the Chinese government and Expo organizers, and a mediocre, uninspiring pavilion design.

World Expos, despite the quaint and archaic image they evoke for many Americans, remain for much of the world major events, considered third only to the Olympics and World Cups for viewer interest and as marketing opportunities. They are highly sought-after events, viewed -- like the Olympics -- as nation-branding exercises for both hosts and guests. And from their origins, pavilion architecture has been the favored means of presenting a country's technology, wealth, and ingenuity. During the Cold War in particular, U.S. pavilions received elaborate public funding and support and employed some of the country's best architects and engineers. But in 1994, in the wake of diplomatic spats, congressional loss of interest in public diplomacy, and American loss of interest in Expos, Congress passed a law preventing the (now defunct) United States Information Agency (USIA) from spending any money on Expos without an express authorization and appropriation by Congress. Henceforth, funding for U.S. pavilions had to come from the private sector -- an expenditure that few American companies were interested in making (thus, Toyota sponsored the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan). Meanwhile, most other countries continued providing public funding -- in some cases, supplemented with private sponsorships.

Despite nearly two decades of U.S. government inattention to Expos, some in the State Department and the U.S. Expo community had hopes that the United States might put on a better show in Shanghai. In November 2006, the State Department, which had taken over the role of managing U.S. participation at Expos from the USIA, published an official "request for proposal" (RFP) to design, build, and fund a U.S. pavilion in Shanghai. Among other provisions, it required a detailed plan for raising a hefty $75 million to $100 million even though most of the national pavilions at Expo 2010 cost less than $30 million and the eventual U.S. pavilion is budgeted at $61 million. Despite this high bar, several groups of designers, architects, and producers submitted detailed proposals, including a proposal that had Frank Gehry as an architect. But the State Department rejected them all, and according to correspondence shared between the department and the last rejected proposal group, the RFP ended in late 2007 without a team in place.

The State Department has refused repeated requests to discuss the RFP and the reasons that the submissions failed. However, at least one of the groups that submitted an unsuccessful bid has raised concerns about the sincerity and fairness of the process and the State Department officials who oversaw it. Moreover, the State Department has a controversial history in administering U.S. Expo involvement since the mid-1990s, including an inspector general's 1999 finding that well-intentioned State Department employees might have violated the law in their single-minded effort to ensure U.S. participation in a 1998 expo.

In this case, what happened after the unsuccessful RFP process is shrouded in secrecy, which the State Department has refused repeated requests to clear up. Here's what we do know: In March 2008, months after the close of the competitive bid process, the State Department abruptly announced that it had awarded authorization to design, build, and fundraise a U.S. pavilion to two former Warner Bros. executives. One of those leaders -- Ellen Eliasoph, a current partner at Covington & Burling in Beijing -- is the wife of a top Commerce Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia Ira Kasoff. Kasoff is a senior U.S. official working on trade access issues between the United States and China; he is also a former Foreign Service officer based in China. Eliasoph and her partner in Expo 2010, Nick Winslow, were, at the time of the authorization, just two private citizens; only after the authorization, and at the official, written, urging of the State Department, did they form a nonprofit, subsequently named Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.

In the spring of 2009, I asked Eliasoph how her group was chosen, and she claimed that the selection process was competitive between "two or three teams," despite the fact that the RFP process had ended months earlier and her group hadn't been part of it. Meanwhile Winslow, a theme-park consultant perhaps best known for assisting on the special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, gave me a different answer, telling me he had arranged the authorization by meeting with consular officials, State Department officials, and members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

A year after those interviews, Jose Villarreal, appointed in 2009 by Clinton to be the pavilion's commissioner general -- the U.S. government's diplomatic official who serves as the pavilion's final decision maker, official liaison, and public face -- told me that the pavilion process, prior to his role in it, included "the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there's been a little bit of all of that." However, on the question of just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was selected, he was less specific, telling me that "a lot of people aren't there [at the State Department] anymore" and "a lot of what happened is kind of a blur." The State Department's Office of Inspector General has forwarded a private citizen's complaint that touches on this selection process directly to the secretary of state's executive office.

The absence of clarity on just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was chosen has likely had consequences for the U.S. image among Shanghai Expo officials, most of whom are senior Chinese government and Communist Party officials. A senior editor at one state-owned publication in Shanghai, for example, recently told me that "everyone knows Ellen got it because of her family connections." True or not, this isn't the image that the U.S. pavilion was supposed to embody. Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. has repeatedly declined to answer my questions about the role of Commerce Department officials in the pavilion authorization process. In a recent, unpublished interview with another reporter, Eliasoph has denied any conflict between her husband's job and her role with the pavilion.

It wouldn't matter nearly so much if Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. had performed to the level expected of it by the State Department. But the sad fact is that Eliasoph and Winslow raised almost no money from the time they were awarded the pavilion authorization, missed multiple construction deadlines, and, in the process, alienated large segments of the U.S. business community in Shanghai, as well as numerous Expo officials, according to several individuals in close contact with the Expo authorities and the expat business community. Finally, in the spring of 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, concerned and frustrated by the faltering U.S. effort, were forced to make personal appeals to Clinton to fix the situation. Shortly afterward, she appointed Villarreal, a friend and fundraiser from San Antonio, to take control of the situation as the commisioner general -- a position that had been previously unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the State Department's apparently noncompetitive authorization of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. means that the group's architect and design weren't subject to a competitive review, a highly unusual procedure in selecting any $61 million building, much less one meant to represent the United States abroad (most of the other major Expo 2010 pavilions were selected in competition). The result is a dull, metal-clad, two-wing complex that's supposed to resemble an eagle. Inside, visitors will be subjected to "4-D" screenings of a film depicting the world of 2030 through the eyes of a Chinese-American woman who visited Expo 2010. This film, no surprise, is produced by longtime acquaintances of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.'s Warner Bros. founders.

William Bostwick, an architecture and design writer for Fast Company, commenting to me on the pavilion in light of the long-past era of great U.S. pavilions, such as the iconic, Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome for Expo ‘67 in Montreal, notes: "The building is basically a giant movie theater -- the architecture is totally secondary to the so-called '4-D multimedia' display inside." Bostwick's withering opinion is not an outlier; the U.S. architectural community has begun to take notice and their assessments are even harsher. It didn't have to be this way, and in fact, it's likely that -- had Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. been subjected to an architectural competition -- the unimaginative design favored by the ex-Warner Bros. executives would not have been the choice of a review panel of even middling U.S. architects. Already, it has been eclipsed by better buildings and concepts located throughout the Expo grounds.

In addition, considerable suspicion revolves around how the $61 million -- 92 percent of which has already been raised, largely due to the efforts of Clinton and Villarreal -- is being spent. Alas, when I asked Villarreal if he would be willing to release the pavilion's budget, he demurred, telling me that the question would be more properly addressed to the pavilion's board of directors. In any case, the pavilion seems to have encountered financial problems, requiring, some say, a loan from the Chinese government to stay afloat.

The budget documents, if they exist, would likely go far to illuminate how, precisely, Shanghai Expo 2010 resurrected itself after informing the State Department in October 2008 that it was "shutting down" due to a shortage of "time and money." In two spring 2009 interviews, Nick Winslow informed me that he'd arranged a Chinese government loan for the purpose. Subsequently, the U.S. consul general  in Shanghai informed me that Winslow had been misquoted. Villarreal, when I asked him about the loan last week, said that it may have been a misunderstanding based upon "semantics." "I had heard that the Chinese had done some preparatory foundational work [at the U.S. pavilion site]," he said. "Some might have characterized that as a loan."

Other fundraising questions persist, including a perceived conflict between Eliasoph's ongoing solicitation of funding from U.S. and Chinese companies while her husband, Kasoff, continues to oversee trade access issues for many of these same companies from the Commerce Department. When I asked the department about Kasoff's role, the chairman of Shanghai Expo 2010, Frank Lavin, explicitly declined to answer queries. (Villarreal told me he'd seen "no shred" of evidence of Kasoff's involvement in the pavilion.)

With less than two months until the opening of Expo 2010 and the nearly completed U.S. pavilion, there's little that anyone can do to rectify the mistakes already made. Hopefully, though, somebody at the State Department will exercise some leadership so that the same kind of debacle doesn't happen if the United States decides to participate at Expo 2015 in Milan. Villarreal, for one, concedes, "We have to find a better way to do World Expos."

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