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It’s been said that if you killed one person, you went to jail; if you killed 10 people you were put in an insane asylum; and if you killed 10,000 people, you were invited to a peace conference. Strongmen knew that they could brutalize their people and pillage their country’s treasury, and at worst be forced into exile with their bank accounts abroad. But times change. The International Criminal Court, the 1998 arrest in Britain of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone are all symbols of a new, if uneven, movement to end impunity for the worst crimes. More than a dozen countries, many in Latin America, have convicted their former rulers of human rights crimes.
On May 30, a United Nations-backed tribunal in The Hague sentenced former Liberian president Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting the rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone who committed horrific abuses against civilians -- including their signature atrocity of cutting off their victims’ limbs. The rebels’ crimes were among the most brutal that I have investigated in a long career of tracking killers and representing their victims with the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and other groups.
The Taylor verdict, as has been widely noted, was the first conviction since the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of a former head of state by an international tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It has cast a spotlight on other former leaders and dictators who are also wanted on serious charges. Here’s my personal list of some of the worst offenders eluding justice:
Hissène Habré, Chad: The former dictator of Chad (1982 - 1990), brought to power with covert U.S. support as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, turned his half-desert country into a police state before fleeing to Senegal, where he still lives. Inspired by the Pinochet’s London arrest , Chadian activists asked Human Rights Watch, which participated in the Pinochet case, to assist Habré's victims in bringing him to justice. In 2000, we filed charges in Senegal and a judge there indicted Habré for crimes against humanity. Two years later in Chad, I stumbled on the files of Habré’s political police, containing the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and over 12,000 victims of different abuses.
Senegal has refused to put Habré on trial, however -- Habré arrived in Senegal with the contents of Chad’s treasury and has built a network of protection -- so we filed a case in Belgium under that country’s long-arm statute. Belgium spent four years investigating the case and then sought his extradition. When Senegal stalled, Belgium asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Senegal to prosecute him immediately or send him to Belgium for trial. In September 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote to the president of Senegal urging a trial there or his extradition to Belgium. A ruling from the ICJ is scheduled for later this year, while the newly elected government in Senegal now says that it wants to try him. After 21 years, the victims don’t want to start from scratch in Senegal and even the government of Chad has called for Habré’s extradition to Belgium. In the meantime, Habré lives comfortably off his ill-gotten gains in two seaside villas in Dakar.
Mengistu Haile Miriam, Ethiopia: The former dictator of Ethiopia (1974 - 1991), known as the “Black Stalin,” lives in Zimbabwe under the protection of President Robert Mugabe, who has refused Ethiopia’s request for his extradition. After overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie, Mengistu’s government killed thousands of political opponents. In 1976 , he gave a dramatic send-off to a campaign that he officially dubbed the "Red Terror," throwing to the ground before a huge crowd in the capital, Addis Ababa, bottles filled with a red substance representing the blood of “enemies of the revolution."
Hundreds of thousands of government opponents, including members of the Oromo ethnic group, former imperial government officials, student Marxists, and peaceful critics were arbitrarily imprisoned. Mengistu's government even blacked out information about the horrific 1984 famine, then used the disaster as a pretext to forcibly relocate hundreds of thousands of villagers away from zones of insurgency into protected areas. When Mengistu left Zimbabwe for South Africa in November 1999 for medical treatment, Human Rights Watch joined with South African activists to seek his arrest, but the authorities allowed him to slip back in to Zimbabwe. Ethiopian courts have convicted Mengistu on genocide charges in absentia.
Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti: OOn the death of his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1971, “Baby Doc,” then 19, took over as “president-for-life” of Haiti. Under the Duvaliers and their Tonton Macoutes militia, thousands of Haitians were killed and tortured, and hundreds of thousands fled into exile. Jean-Claude himself was chased out of the country in 1986, fleeing to France under U.S. protection. So it was a surprise in January 2011 when Duvalier returned home after having squandered the estimated $300 million to $800 million he allegedly embezzled from state coffers. Within days of his return, a group of indignant former detainees went to court to seek justice.
I worked with the government of then-president René Préval and the United Nations to build the case against Duvalier. Unfortunately, the will to prosecute Duvalier evaporated with the election of President Michel Martelly, who surrounded himself with advisers from the Duvalier era, invited the former dictator to official functions, and suggested that he would grant Duvalier a pardon or amnesty. Even the United States, which has tenaciously pursued justice over many years in cases such as that of the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, has been studiously silent on this one. The Duvalier case "is a matter for the Haitian courts and for the Haitian people who feel aggrieved," said the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten. We weren’t surprised, then, when the new state prosecutor asked the investigating judge to drop the case. In January, the judge retained embezzlement charges but dismissed torture and murder charges on the ground that the statute of limitations had run out. The victims are appealing the judgment.
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General Raoul Cedrás, Haiti: Cedrás led a bloody coup against the elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. During Cedrás’s de facto rule thousands were killed, tortured, and raped. When President Aristide was restored in 1994 by a U.S.-led multinational force,, Washington reportedly gave Cedrás a $1 million "golden parachute" to resign and leave for Panama, where he was granted asylum together with his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby. Panama refused a Haitian extradition request for the return of the pair.
In a case I helped investigate on behalf of the Haitian government, Generals Cedrás and Biamby were convicted in 1999 by a Haitian court for their participation in an April 1994 massacre of peasants in the slum of Raboteau. Rejecting a request by Human Rights Watch to prosecute or extradite the two generals, the Panamanian Foreign Ministry told us that, "It would be a dangerous precedent to grant the right of asylum to resolve a political problem in a neighboring country and later deny the rights of those given asylum." Biamby died in 2008, but Cedrás reportedly runs a computer graphics shop in Panama City.
Panama had acquired something of a reputation as a safe haven for the world's washed-up dictators, with Cedrás joining Jorge Serrano of Guatemala and Abdala ”El Loco” Bucaram of Ecuador. In the past, it hosted Juan Perón and the Shah of Iran. The 1998 Pinochet arrest seemingly changed the ethos, however. When the shadowy Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos turned up there seeking asylum in 2000 after a video was televised of him bribing a congressman, I went to Panama to try to convince the government to refuse his asylum and, if possible, prosecute him for torture. President Mireya Moscoso denied asylum to Montesinos, who was forced to wander internationally until he was captured in Caracas, Venezuela, and returned to Peru to stand trial. He is now serving time for corruption and awaiting sentencing on “disappearances” charges.
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Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia: Tunisia’s long-serving dictator (1987 - 2011) fled the country in January 2011 for Saudi Arabia, the first leader to be overthrown as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa. Ben Ali left behind a legacy of corruption and abuse that culminated in the killing of 240 people during the uprising, most of them by police gunfire, in addition to the scores of inmates who perished in prison mutinies and fires.
In two trials in absentia, Ben Ali was convicted and sentenced by Tunisian courts for crimes ranging from embezzlement and drug trafficking to theft and plunder. A third court convicted him of “using violence” against 17 high-ranking military officers who were said to be plotting against him in 1991. On June 13, in another trial against Ben Ali and his security chiefs concerning the killing of protesters during Tunisia’s uprising, he was sentenced to life in prison. The former president’s 22 co-defendants, including two former interior ministers, attended the trial Trials in absentia do not meet international standards for ensuring a defendant’s basic rights. Should Ben Ali find himself back in Tunisia, he should be re-tried.
Meanwhile, Ben Ali lives comfortably in Jeddah, where the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin also lived out his last days. Although there is an international arrest warrant pending against him, Tunisia has yet to press for his extradition. Some years ago when I asked a Saudi diplomat about the possibility of Amin's extradition or prosecution, he told me that "Bedouin hospitality" meant that once someone was welcomed as a guest in your tent, you did not turn him out. (In fact, Bedouin custom mandates hospitality for three days only, but this interpretation suggests that Ben Ali does not have to worry either.)
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Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala: Rios Montt headed a U.S.-supported Guatemalan military regime in the early 1980s whose “scorched earth” counterinsurgency program led to hundreds of massacres of civilians and -- according to a U.N.-sponsored truth commission -- "acts of genocide" against the indigenous Mayan population. One such massacre, Las Dos Erres, included the rape of young women, smashing of infants' heads and the interment of more than 160 people -- some while still alive -- in the village well. More than 200,000 people died in the gruesome village-to-village conflict.
And yet President Ronald Reagan famously said that Ríos Montt, whom he described as "a man of great personal integrity," was "getting a bum rap on human rights." In 1999, President Bill Clinton issued a public apology for the U.S. role in supporting Guatemala’s military regimes. For decades, Rios Montt was able to hide behind parliamentary immunity. However, a long struggle by Guatemalan human rights activists, aided by the courageous Attorney General Claudia Paz, led to his indictment this year on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt, now 85 and still living in Guatemala, is appealing the indictment.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen: Saleh finally stepped down as president of Yemen this year (1990 – 2012) after Yemen’s Parliament granted him blanket amnesty and granted all those who served with him immunity from prosecution for “political” crimes, apart from terrorist acts. The U.S. government, the European Union, and Persian Gulf states backed the immunity deal, contending that it was necessary to convince Saleh to relinquish his long reign, but it could shield the president and his aides from prosecution for deadly attacks by state security forces and pro-government gangs on largely peaceful demonstrators in 2011.
Human Rights Watch has documented the deaths of 270 protesters and bystanders during last year’s protests; thousands more were wounded by live ammunition.. Despite his resignation, Saleh continues to exercise influence, personally and through his extended family and followers, who still hold positions of power, particularly in the security forces.
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Than Shwe, Myanmar: Than Shwe was head of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council from 1992 to 2011 and commander of the Burmese armed forces. He resigned in 2011 and Burma has since been on the road to reform. But under Than Shwe’s rule, state security forces engaged in arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings with impunity. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffered in Burma's squalid prisons. When Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma in 2008, leaving some 140,000 dead or missing and more than 2 million homeless, Than Shwe delayed access to stricken areas by international aid organizations.
Under Than Shwe, the Burmese military committed widespread abuses against civilians in its operations against ethnic armed groups, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, forced labor, and destruction and theft of food and property. Civilians and convicts were forced to be porters and carry artillery shells and other supplies through battle zones, including by walking ahead of troops to trigger landmines in a practice known as "atrocity de-mining."
Than Shwe is currently enjoying the comforts of a lavish lifestyle, reportedly out of one of his mansions in Nyapyidaw, the country's new capital. Past and present U.N. human rights experts, and 16 governments, have called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged crimes under his rule. This would be a first step toward accountability but these efforts lost steam following the election of a nominally civilian government. Most of Burma’s senior leadership are former members of the military, and they are apparently loyal to Than Shwe and unlikely to support any moves to bring him to justice. His picture still hangs on the walls of some senior ministers' offices.
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Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan: Musharraf was Musharraf was Pakistan’s Army chief and military ruler from 1999 to 2008. He was forced to resign in the wake of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and elections that brought her Pakistan Peoples Party to power. Musharraf, a U.S. ally in the “war on terror,” has the unique distinction of having suspended constitutional rule twice during his time in office. After declaring a state of emergency in 2007, Musharraf began a violent crackdown and ordered the detention of some 10,000 political opponents -- including most of the country’s Supreme Court judges.
Under his watch, the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies committed widespread abuses including the enforced disappearances of thousands of political opponents, particularly from Balochistan province, and tortured hundreds of Pakistani terrorism suspects. Political opponents including high-profile opposition politicians were jailed, tortured and in some instances murdered. Hundreds of “disappeared” remain unaccounted for and are feared dead. Musharraf now lives in exile in London and Dubai. Musharraf claims he will return and run for office.
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