Majd Kayyal & The Trial of Hissene Habre

This week on teleSUR’s The Global African, we talk to Palestinian activist Majd Kayyal about the importance of forging solidarity with the African American struggle and we also look at the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre.

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Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk to Palestinian activist and journalist Majd Kayyal about his trip to the United States and the importance of making a connection with the African-American struggle. We’ll also talk about the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.

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The Global African has this great opportunity to interview Majd Kayyal, the media coordinator for Adalah, which in Arabic means justice. It’s a human rights organization in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories. He’s here in the United States for a very intriguing reason: to build solidarity with African Americans. This is not simply a symbolic action. There have been decades of efforts at building solidarity between our two freedom struggles. In this episode of The Global African, we’re going to explore that relationship.

We’re joined in the studios today by Majd Kayyal.

Thank you very much for joining us.

MAJD KAYYAL: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: So what brought you to the United States?

KAYYAL: Well, mainly the similarities, the strong similarities between the two cases of African Americans and the Arab citizens of Israel. When I think of Ferguson, I think of Michael Brown, I cannot not remember my cousin that was killed by the police because he was protesting at political events. And I cannot ignore the strong attach, the strong similarities between us, between the two struggles.

But I can think of three levels. The first level is to show solidarity, to express the understanding and the sharing of the pain of the people who suffer of discrimination and racism. It’s very important for us to say that we know this feeling and we know what the black people in America are suffering, because in the end of the day, our struggle is motivated by feelings, by the human sense of justice, and not only out of political decisions and political motivation. But we start from the human point. We start from the human rights point.

And the second thing is a message to my community, to my people, that we cannot struggle against racism with counter racism. We cannot think about ourself only as Palestinians and only as Arab, and that’s why we are struggling. We are struggling–we are starting our struggle from the point of human rights and global values, universal values of human rights, of freedom, of equality, of democracy. And this is very important, this connection that we are making not only with the African Americans, but with a lot of people around the world that are struggling their causes. This is a very important message for us, to say that we are part of this universal movement for rights.

And the third thing, not only on the level of values, but on the level of practice, to learn. This is the most important thing, to learn the tactics, to learn the method of work, to learn about ourself and how we can improve our struggle, how we can support each other.

This is the three main things that is motivating my visit.

FLETCHER: Prior to the program, we were talking about a lot of things. And one of the things that I found fascinating was our discussion about, in addition to similarities between the Palestinian and African-American situation, but particular similarities between Palestinians and Native Americans. Do you want to elaborate on that?

KAYYAL: Yeah. I think that we are the native people of Palestine. We are the obstacle that the Zionist movement had when they moved from Europe to Palestine in order to establish their state, their colonial project. So we are considered in the Zionist literature as the obstacle that they need to get rid of. And this is what happened in 1948.

In 1948, the majority of the Palestinian people was [cleansized (?)]. Five hundred thirty villages was destroyed completely, and their people became refugees in the Arab world. Seventy-five percent of the Palestinian people today are refugees. Palestinians in Palestine before ’48, they were 1.4 million. After the Nakba remained only around 100,000 people that we are today the Palestinian citizens of Israel, that we are today 1.2 million. We are 20 percent of the Israeli citizens. But we are still considered by the Israeli authority as the threat, as the demographic threat for the Jewish majority, because [crosstalk]

FLETCHER: And you’re talking about people, Palestinians within Israel.

KAYYAL: Yes. We are a Palestinian people that remained in Israel after the Catastrophe, the Nakba, which is the days of the establishment of the Israeli state. We remained, and we took–first of all, we stayed until military govern, until the ’60s. And then they gave us, like, citizenship. We became a citizen. But the question is: what kind of citizens, citizenship?

So we are in a place that we are considered also always by the state as the enemies. Why? Because we are threatening the basic ideology of the Israeli state, that it’s keeping a Jewish majority. The main target for the Zionist movement and for the Israeli state is to keep a Jewish majority in Palestine. We are a problem. We are not Jewish.

So that’s why the police brutality that is very similar come from the place that they see us as protesters or as normal people that can be [incompr.] They see us and consider us as enemies here. It [incompr.] and not only the police brutality. I think that the police violence reflects the violence that we suffer every day in different aspects of life, in education, in workplaces, in landing, in housing, in all the aspects of life that are full of violence, full of oppression in everything. And the police brutality is the most, let’s say, brutal and the most clear image for that. But violence and oppression are found in our daily life in everything.

FLETCHER: You know, every so often, but increasingly, we’re hearing Israeli politicians suggest the removal of Palestinians not just from the occupied territories, but from within Israel itself and the removal to Jordan. I mean, is this rhetoric, or, I mean, is this their objective?

KAYYAL: I think this is their objective. Whenever they say that the main target is to keep a Jewish majority, this is what they are saying, clearly.

Now, this is the main problem about settler colonialists, how they think. They think that people are objects that they can move, they can kill. They can displace them from here and concentrate them in those cities. They don’t look at us as humans that has connection to the land, connection to the history, connection to the language, to the space that we are living in. They look–they see us as an object that [is] there only in the context of their political needs and political interest.

For example, we have the case of Umm al-Hiran. Umm al-Hiran is a small village in the Naqab area, which is in the south of Israel-Palestine. And this village, it has a demolish order. Two thousand people, all over, their houses are having a demolishing order. Why? Because they want to build a Jewish town on its roots. They want to clear the Palestinian, the Arab village and build a Jewish town on it. Why? Because they want, because they can, because they have a message of who is the master of this land, who is the master here, who give the orders here.

And if you look at it, you will find that it’s part of big project of connecting the settlements in the West Bank, and Hebron especially, to the area of the Naqab, which is in the south of Israel, which says clearly that there is nothing called Palestine and Israel; it’s all our territory, it’s all our place.

And here this connection that is made between the West Bank and inside Israel is–it’s important because it shows that the problem is not only the occupation in the ’67 territories, but it’s more substantial. It’s more about values. It’s more about a regime that is based on a racist point of view against the native people that are living here.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you one final question. What is your message to African Americans about the situation facing Palestinians? What’s the one or two things that you most want African Americans to appreciate about the Palestinian situation?

KAYYAL: I think–first of all, I think that it’s–I want–okay. [incompr.] The most important thing here is the understanding that our struggles, even if it’s far away of each other, are connected, are deeply connected in one structure of ideas, which is the values of human rights, democracy, freedom, and equality. This is the most important thing for me.

But second, it’s important to understand the Palestinian problem not as a problem of territories and borders, but a problem of struggle against racist regime, against a regime that is built on the idea of supremacy. And the solidarity of the victims, the solidarity of the people who suffer the oppression, this is–for itself, it’s important value in any struggle against any oppression in the world.

FLETCHER: Majd Kayyal, thank you very much for joining us for The Global African.

KAYYAL: Thank you.

FLETCHER: Take care.

And thanks very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: Former leader of Chad Hissène Habré is currently facing trial for crimes against humanity during his reign as president of that Central African nation. Habré has been referred to as Africa’s Pinochet, drawing from the name Augusto Pinochet, the longtime dictator of Chile. Much like Pinochet, his brutal reign was supported by the United States government. During his leadership it was reported that some 40,000 people had either died or mysteriously disappeared. Additionally, there were many reported accounts of torture under his watch.

In 1990, Habré fled an uprising and went into exile in Senegal. His official trial, however, began in 2013, but there were numerous delays due to his unwillingness to appear. Now thousands of Chadians seek justice for his wrongdoings as court proceedings are underway.

We’re now joined by Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch, an attorney by training. Before joining Human Rights Watch, he led United Nations teams in investigating massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and El Salvador. His work has been profiled in The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

Thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.

REED BRODY: You’re quite welcome.

FLETCHER: So we wanted to talk about this trial of Hissène Habré, but it might be useful to just do a little bit of background on Chad as a Central African country and what the struggle–how is it that we find ourselves today with this trial of Habré?

BRODY: Hissène Habré was the dictator of Chad from 1982 to 1990. He was brought into power by the Ronald Reagan administration, which saw him as a bulwark against Muammar Gaddafi, Chad’s northern neighbor, who had expansionist designs on Chad. And in fact, just as Reagan was taking office, the president, then president of Chad, Goukouni Oueddei, had signed a merger agreement with Gaddafi. And the United States saw Libya as its main enemy in the region.

And according to the reporter Bob Woodward, the United States supported Habré as a way to bloody Gaddafi’s nose. And the United States saw Habré as the anti-Gaddafi. He was a warlord at the time. He had come to international prominence by kidnapping the French anthropologist Françoise Claustre, holding her for three years, killing the French negotiator who had come to try for her release. But the United States bet on Hissène Habré, and with secret arms shipped by the Reagan administration, ultimately with the support of France as well, Hissène Habré came into power in 1982.

He continued to fight against the Libyans, who were occupying the north of the country, and with U.S. and French support, Habré defeated the Libyans decisively.

But at the same time, he turned his country into a police state. He’s alleged to have committed thousands of political killings, systematic torture. He had an archipelago of political prisons. He had a police called the DDS, which were his–it was like his personal Gestapo, which directly reported to him, which was called his eyes and ears around the country. And thousands of Chadians were put into DDS prisons.

Habré was finally overthrown in 1990 by the current president, Idriss Déby, who 25 years later is still the president of Chad. And Habré fled, eventually, to Senegal, which is where he lives today and where he’s being tried.

FLETCHER: Was this a popular uprising? Or was this a falling out among thieves?

BRODY: It was a bit of both. Idriss Déby had been Hissène Habré’s military chief earlier on during one of the more bloody periods of the repression in Chad, called Black September, but then had been basically exiled and then brought back as an adviser. But he and two of the other Zaghawa tribe leaders who were part of Habré’s coalition broke off with Habré, for reasons that are not totally clear, and started a rebellion.

Hissène Habré, as he did in previous such instances, then carried out an ethnic campaign against members of the Zaghawa ethnic group, and entire villages were burned. Hundreds of Zaghawa leaders were imprisoned. In the DDS documents I described, we have lists of the Zaghawa traitors in our prisons.

Finally, in December, December 1, 1990, Idriss Déby’s troops enter Chad and the prison gates come open. So it was kind of–I mean, it was an armed fight to bring Habré to justice.

FLETCHER: So Habré ends up in Senegal. How is it that he ends up on trial?

BRODY: Well, what happened is in–his victims–and there’s a number of his victims wanted to bring him to justice, but–and it seemed like the new government was going to offer, as Idriss Déby said, was–didn’t come to offer gold, but to offer liberty. But that soon changed. And the truth commission that had been set up found its work ignored, and the victims association basically went into hibernation.

In 1998, when the Chilean general Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on charges by a Spanish judge about alleged crimes committed 20 years earlier in Chile and the British House of Lords ruled that Pinochet was not immune from arrest anywhere in the world, despite his status as a former head of state, the human rights movement was in effervescence. And people around the world started thinking, well, maybe we can bring our former torturers, tyrants to justice. And Human Rights Watch was contacted by a Chadian human rights group to ask if we could help the Chadian victims in bringing Hissène Habré to justice in his exile in Senegal.

And we began working with them, I began working with his victims 16 years ago, actually, 1999. And we put together a coalition of Chadian and Senegalese activists and lawyers, and we helped them file the first case against Habré in Senegal. And Habré was actually arrested in Senegal 15 years ago, before the government of the then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, basically toyed with the victims’ hopes for 12 years. He had the case thrown out of court. He then promised to extradite Habré to Belgium, where the victims had sought justice. He then promised the African Union that he would prosecute Habré in Senegal.

Nothing happened until 2012, when in the course of a couple of months, the International Court of Justice, the World Court in The Hague, ordered Senegal to either extradite or prosecute Hissène Habré according to their legal obligations. And at the same time, a new president of Senegal, Macky Sall, was elected and said that he was going to organize a trial of Hissène Habré in Senegal.

It’s been a long struggle for the victims, who have been in Senegal, in Belgian, in the African Union in Addis, at the United Nations, and have really fought for 15 years to create the political conditions for the trial that’s going on now to take place.

FLETCHER: And what are the ramifications of this trial, twofold, one, for the rest of the continent, but the other is within Chad itself? I mean, you mentioned that Habré’s successor as a result of the overthrow has been in office for 25 years. What are people in Chad saying?

BRODY: That’s a very good question. I think there are many ramifications. The first, on a basic level, is here we have one of the rare times in the world a group of survivors who have fought and who have been the architects of their winning campaign to bring Habré to justice–and that I think is very attractive. In the same way that Pinochet’s victims were inspired, had inspired Hissène Habré’s victims, right now we are getting requests from all over Africa and the world. The victims’ leaders have been invited to Togo, to Zimbabwe, to Gambia, to Rwanda to talk about their experiences. And hopefully others will say, well, wait a second, these people actually achieved justice.

It’s–also comes in the context, of course, of this tug-of-war between the African Union and the International Criminal Court over Kenya, over Sudan. And this is an opportunity to show that African courts can actually provide justice for crimes allegedly committed in Africa.

In Chad, I think it sends a very powerful message to the man who’s in charge now, Idriss Déby, that there are limits and that–and for somebody who has ruled in an authoritarian way for 25 years, the idea that activists have brought to justice your predecessor is a very subversive idea.

And there’s a big–there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background here with the Chadian government. I mean, Idriss Déby, the current president, was Habré’s military chief during a particularly bloody period. At the same time, many of his members of his family are victims, and one of them is going to testify, when Habré went after the Zaghawas. And at the same time, you have this other factor, that if you’re an authoritarian, [the idea] that your predecessor has been brought to justice by human rights groups and victims groups is quite threatening, I think.

FLETCHER: I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us on The Global African. Thank you very, very much.

BRODY: You’re quite welcome.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time.

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