On the face of it, Augusto Pinochet and Hissène Habré have little in common—besides both being backed by the U.S. during the Cold War. Pinochet, the longtime Chilean president, saw himself as a conservative defender of traditional values and was a staunch opponent of communism. Habré, the former Chadian president, was a desert warlord who billed himself as an anti-imperialist who quoted Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.
But the arrest of Pinochet in London 18 years ago Friday set an important precedent that resulted in Habré’s ongoing trial in Senegal on charges of crimes against humanity, says Reed Brody, counsel and spokesman for Human Rights Watch who is one of the driving forces behind the trial.
“This case is a direct result of the Pinochet case,” he said in a telephone interview from Dakar, the Senegalese capital. “When the House of Lords ruled that Pinochet could be arrested and prosecuted anywhere in the world, despite his status as a former head of state, the human-rights movement was in effervescence. It showed that we had an instrument to hold accountable people who seemed out of the reach of justice until then.”
Pinochet came to power in 1973 in a coup in which he toppled Salvador Allende, the head of the country’s left-wing government. Over the next nearly two decades, he left behind a legacy of torture, executions, and disappearances. He left office in 1990, but maintained powerful positions in the military and the senate. But Pinochet never stood trial—partly because of his age and health—and died in 2006 while under house arrest in Chile.