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Stateside With Rosalea - We can be heroes

Stateside With Rosalea - We can be heroes

One balmy summer evening in 2000, as newly endorsed VP candidate Dick Cheney innocently aided and abetted terrorists by giving an audience of millions a monument-by-monument description of the flightpath to take for a landing at the Pentagon, my home was surrounded by armed police.

Relative newcomer that I was to the States, I wasn't sure which was scarier - the Republican National Convention, with its chants of "Bring them home! Bring them home!" (meaning the US troops on "policing" missions overseas) or the cortege of black SUV's disgorging bullet-proof vests and weaponry in support of a search of the shop downstairs. My phone having gone dead, I wasn't able to ring the police to find out what the search was about, and I sure as hell wasn't going to go downstairs to ask.

At a very basic level, however, I knew I didn't have anything to fear. This is, after all, the United States of America, the pride of democracy. It's not like the guys running the store were dragged away never to be seen again, or shot and left to serve as a warning to others. Nor did I feel called upon to do anything brave and/or foolish in the service of some higher good - at most I might have printed out some literature about civil liberties to give to the searchees after the police left, and felt liberal-smug for doing so.

Some people do not live in such luxury, and last Friday I was in the presence of one of them. He had been imprisoned and tortured, then, when the tyrant who ruled his country was defeated, he was released. But his torturers were recycled into the country's new infrastructure, so he had no place within his own nation to go with the 792 stories of fellow prisoners that he and the victim group he had formed painstakingly documented. He hid those stories for eight years, until Human Rights Watch heard about them and helped him - one solitary citizen - to take a tyrant to court for crimes against humanity.

The man's name is Souleymane Guengueng and his journey is not over. The day before I saw him speak he learned that he had been fired from his job back in Chad, where he was a civil servant. His lawyer in Chad once had a grenade thrown at her. Through a translator he told us that he didn't even know why he had been imprisoned, as he wasn't a politician nor had he been rich enough to help anti-Habre forces. Perhaps, he said, it was because he put up many Chadians in his home in the Cameroons where he fled during the civil war that eventually led to Habre's overthrow.

Chad was Ronald Reagan's first covert operation. According to a handout given out at Friday's meeting, the US gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help Habre take power, and provided him with "tens of millions of dollars in military aid per year as well as intelligence information, despite its knowlege of his brutal tactics, which included massacres and torture by security forces funded and trained by the United States. The United States also used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers whom it was organizing into an anti-Khaddafi force." (Libya is Chad's northern neighbour and was at war with it for twenty years until 1988.)

In 1990, Habre fled to Senegal and has been living there in luxury ever since, having reportedly looted Chad's treasury. In January 2000, Human Rights Watch, after investigating the allegations of Habre's crimes, brought a criminal case against him in a Senegalese court. As a party to the UN Convention Against Torture, Senegal is obliged to prosecute or extradite alleged torturers who enter the country, and in February 2000, a Senegalese judge indicted Habre as an accomplice to torture and crimes against humanity, and placed him under house arrest.

Habre's lawyers moved to dismiss the case, with the support of the Senegalese prosecutor, and the judge who indicted Habre was transferred off it and the case was dismissed. In the meantime, the victims filed a case against Habre in Belgium, which has very expansive long-arm jurisdiction, allowing Belgian courts to prosecute the worst international crimes, regardless of where they were committed.

You can read more about HRW's work on the Hissene Habre case at Human Rights Watch is scrupulously accurate in its gathering of information and evidence. Because of that, its reports are often used as a news source all around the world.

But more than that, Human Rights Watch gives a very real hope that one person - even a humble civil servant like Souleymane Guengueng - can shine a light on darkness, and that "no person, no matter how powerful, is above the law."

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