By Sudarsan Raghavan
Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre gesturing as he leaves a Dakar courthouse after a hearing on June 3. An official truth commission report in 1992 accused his regime of committing some 40,000 political murders — although only 4,000 victims were officially named. (Sey Llousey/AFP/Getty Images)
You’ve probably never heard of Hissene Habre, but you should have.
Your taxes helped fund his brutal regime in Chad in the 1980s for eight years. The former dictator was one of Washington’s many “men” in sub-Saharan Africa. Backed by American dollars, they brutalized their own people in the name of fighting communism or terrorism. They were feted by American presidents and invited to state dinners in Washington, even as they jailed and tortured anyone they deemed a threat to their way of life.
In Habre, the United States and its close ally France saw a way to counter Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Brought to power by covert CIA support under the Reagan administration, Habre’s security forces were trained by key American allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Habre used them generously and lethally: His secret police are accused of killing some 40,000 people in political prisons between 1982 and 1990, according to findings by a Chadian truth commission. An additional 200,000 had been unjustly imprisoned and tortured.
Now, Habre is finally being held accountable. His trial for allegedly perpetrating crimes against humanity and war crimes began this week in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, where Habre, 72, has lived in exile, peacefully, for the past quarter century. A special court, formed especially to prosecute him, will serve as a test of whether African nations, who have a long history of dictators among them, have the power and the will to punish one of its own members.
On Monday, Habre was hauled into court by masked guards as he shouted in protest and tried to resist being seated inside the court.
Justice could soon be served for all the relatives of Habre’s victims. But the support of vicious human rights abusers remains an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.
Here are five of the most egregious U.S.-backed violators operating today that Americans have never heard of.
Islam Karimov — president of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov attends an informal Commonwealth of Independent States leaders summit on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 8. (Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti via Reuters)
Former Communist party leader Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron first since it won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He has brutally quashed all political opposition and jailed dissidents and journalists. Human rights activists speak of forced child labor and systematic oppression of anyone who poses a threat to the regime. The most infamous abuse occurred in 2005, when Karimov’s security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing hundreds, according to activists.
Now, the Obama administration is courting Karimov, seeing Uzbekistan as vital to U.S. goals in Afghanistan, as well as to fend off the growing presence of the Islamic State in Central Asia. This year, the United States gave about 300 armored vehicles to Karimov’s military, the largest donation of military hardware from the U.S. to a former Soviet Central Asian country.
2. Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa — king of Bahrain
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa waves to reporters after a meeting with French President François Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Sept. 8. (Christophe Ena/AP)
The Sunni Muslim monarchy, led by Khalifa, cracked down heavily on largely Shiite protesters during 2011 Arab Spring revolutions with the help of soldiers from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 30 were killed, mostly at the hands of Bahraini security forces, and hundreds more were wounded, according to human rights groups. Hundreds more were arrested and scores faced trials before a military court.
Washington has significant geopolitical interests in Bahrain. Key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia backs Bahrain, and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. So it comes as no surprise that the U.S., after initially criticizing the monarchy for the crackdown, has resumed military aid to a nation that the watchdog group Freedom House describes as “Not free.”
“The Obama administration’s decision to lift the hold on military assistance to Bahrain cannot be attributed to improvements in political rights or civil liberties in Bahrain because no such improvements exist,” Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, said this summer in a statement. “Thousands of Bahrainis remain imprisoned for voicing opposition to the government, and reports of torture are widespread. If anything, punishment and discrimination for ordinary Bahrainis is deepening. As a result of its latest decision, the United States has stepped away from trying to improve respect there for fundamental human rights.”
3. Emomali Rahmon — president of Tajikistan
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon attends a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Sept. 2. (Lintao Zhang/Pool photo via Reuters)
Under Rahmon, Tajikistan’s human rights abuses have grown. He has cracked down hard on political opponents as well as independent media. His security forces routinely use torture to obtain confessions, according to Human Rights Watch. They have also targeted lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, and cracked down on religious freedoms. Freedom House describes the country as “Not free.” Last month, the group said that a banning of an opposition by Rahmon’s government confirms that the country is now a “dictatorship.”
Rahmon, in a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, was described, along with his family, as playing “hardball to protect their business interests, no matter the cost to the economy writ large.” It described a culture of “cronyism and corruption” plaguing the country. The United States, though, considers Rahman as vital to American interests in Afghanistan and preventing Islamic militancy and opium smuggling from spreading into Central Asia.
In late August, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, head of U.S. Central Command, visited Rahmon in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to discuss bilateral cooperation in counterterrorism and to fight the drug trade.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — president of Turkmenistan
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, right, and Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, hold a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 27. Berdymukhamedov was on an official visit to Kabul to discuss issues of mutual interest with Afghan leadership. (Jawad Jalali/Pool photo via AP)
Berdymukhamedov, who came to power in 2006, presides over one of theworld’s most repressive nations. Virtually every basic right — from freedom of expression to media to religion — is denied. Berdymukhamedov and his relatives control all aspects of public life. According to Human Rights Watch, relatives of people jailed during waves of mass arrests in the late 1990s and early 2000s still do not have any information about their fates.
Berdymukhamedov, though, has allowed U.S. military aircraft en route to Afghanistan to fly through his country’s air space. Also attractive to U.S. interests in the region is Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves — the largest in Central Asia. He has discussed strengthening energy relationships with then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Washington views Turkmenistan as a vital piece of its goal to bolster Afghanistan’s economy by creating a new “Silk Road” — investment projects and regional trade blocs that would bring economic growth and stability to Central Asia. Chief among the projects is a long-proposed gas pipeline that would flow from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan.
This year, Freedom House named Turkmenistan one of its 10 “worst of the worst” nations in terms of democracy, human rights and other basic freedoms. The list includes North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Central African Republic — and Uzbekistan and Equatorial Guinea.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — president of Equatorial Guinea
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, and wife Constancia Mangue De Obiang arrive for a dinner hosted by President Obama for the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit on Aug. 5, 2014. (Susan Walsh/AP)
He is Africa’s longest-reigning autocrat, in power since 1979. Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea is one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Obiang and his family own luxury properties around the world, drive expensive cars and fly in a private jet, as the vast majority of his people live in dire poverty, and one fifth of children die before age 5. There is virtually no freedom of the press, no political opposition. Allegations of torture of political prisoners abound.
Washington has long sought to keep strong ties with Obiang because of Equatorial Guinea’s oil reserves, seen as a way to lessen dependence on Middle East crude. U.S. oil companies are one of Equatorial Guinea’s largest investors, playing a lead role in oil and gas exploration and extraction. Last year, during the U.S.-Africa leaders summit, President Obama posed for a photo with Obiang and his wife, who were his guests at a White House dinner. The magazine Mother Jones at the time labeled Obiang one of Obama’s “5 most atrocious dinner guests.”