Global Policy Forum

The Exile Files, 2003

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By Dave Gilson

Mother Jones
August 21, 2003

Until his death last week, the notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin spent nearly 20 years living in luxurious impunity in Saudi Arabia. Far from the reach of human-rights tribunals and victims, he lived quietly, praying at his local mosque, shopping for frozen food, spending time with his wives and children, and receiving top-notch health care for his failing kidneys. Not a bad retirement for a man responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.


Amin was hardly the first deposed despot to spend his golden years far from the glare of history. As Amin lay dying, Liberian warlord-turned-statesman Charles Taylor flew off to Nigeria, where he hopes to evade war-crimes charges and await his chance to return to power. Some rulers don't even have to leave home to elude justice. Witness the Taliban's Mullah Omar and Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic, who have managed to keep low profiles in their own backyards for months. And then, of course, there's Saddam Hussein, who turned down offers of exile only to go underground when US forces rolled into Iraq. Saddam's assumed to still be hiding out in Iraq -- although one rumor circulating among Iraqis holds that the Butcher of Baghdad is actually in exile, living it up at the White House, of all places.

All this news of despots at large has renewed human-rights advocates' calls to hold them accountable for their actions in office. Finding them shouldn't be too tough. As this list shows, plenty of retired tyrants are still living in plain sight, both abroad and at home:

In Exile Abroad:

Mengistu Haile Miriam (Ethiopia) -- According to legend, Mengistu killed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie with his bare hands and buried his body in his office. Such tales haven't deterred Zimbabwe from offering refuge to the former Marxist despot since 1991. Mengistu now lives in high-security comfort in Harare, travels with a Zimbabwean diplomatic passport, and just received a guarantee of 10 more years of asylum. But just in case his host, autocrat Robert Mugabe, should lose power, it's said that Mengistu has asked North Korea to put him up.

Hissí¨ne Habré (Chad) -- Habré ruled from 1982 to 1990, during which time as many as 40,000 Chadians were executed, and 200,000 were tortured. After being overthrown, Habré fled to Senegal, where he settled in a village outside Dakar. Former victims and human rights groups have called for Habré to be put on trial for his crimes. The Senegalese government has said the reclusive former dictator's welcome is wearing thin, and a lawsuit against him has been filed in Belgium. Sounding very much like several other deposed tyrants, Habré claims he is the victim of an international conspiracy.

Raoul Cedras (Haiti) -- Panama granted the feared Haitian military leader asylum in 1994, after the U.S. restored Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. Cedras had deposed the democratically-elected Aristide in 1991, launching a reign of terror in which as many as 10,000 people died. In 2000, a Haitian judge sentenced Cedras to life imprisonment for his involvement in an infamous massacre in one of Gonaives's poorest slums. But Cedras seems safe where he is. Panama has refused to hand him over. He currently resides in a wealthy section of Panama City, reportedly living very well off ill-gotten profits from arms and drug smuggling.

Jorge Serrano Elias (Guatemala) -- Panama is also the home away from home for Serrano, who was elected president of Guatemala in 1993. Once in office, he suspended the constitution and sought to centralize power, only to be forced out popular protests. Though Serrano is wanted in his homeland for stealing public funds, Panama has repeatedly denied extradition requests. Recently, Serrano's murky record was back in the spotlight in this country, as his name surfaced in connection with the Enron scandal. Senate investigators said the company made "questionable" payments of $17 million to a Panamanian company with ties to Serrano.

Alberto Fujimori (Peru) -- Fujimori was elected president of Peru in 1990, but assumed near-dictatorial powers during his decade-long rule. Under the aegis of a sweeping campaign against left-wing rebels, he dissolved Congress and gave the military and security forces broad powers. Fujimori was never actually deposed -- he went into self-imposed exile in Japan in 2001, after being linked to a bribery scandal involving former intelligence head Vladimiro Montesinos. He has since been granted citizenship by Japan, which has refused to extradite him on charges of corruption, treason and authorizing death-squad killings -- all charges Fujimori has denied. Despite being banned from re-entering Peruvian politics until 2010, he is reportedly already planning a comeback.

Milton Obote (Uganda) -- Obote has called Zambia home since he was run out of Uganda in 1985. In 1971, then-president Obote was unseated by his army chief of staff Idi Amin. But he never went away, and, after Amin's fall, the erstwhile executive returned to power and oversaw a bloody rule in which 100,000 Ugandans died. Once supported by the Zambian government, he now lives in shabby digs in Lusaka and claims to support 47 people on $1,000 a month. In a recent interview, the 79-year old defended his past: "I was not a dictator. I tried to solve Uganda's problems peacefully." He has expressed interest in returning home.

Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay) -- Stroessner has resided with his wife in Brazil since 1989, when his 35 years as a military dictator came to an end. The nonagenarian general has said he'd like to go home. Paraguay would like to have him back, too: He faces charges of kidnapping, torture and murder. Meanwhile, he keeps occupied fishing, watching the tube and catching rays on the porch of his mansion in Brasilia.

Joao Bernardo Vieira (Guinea Bissau) -- In 1980, Vieira ejected Guinea Bissau's first president and formed a military government. Nineteen years later, the army booted him. He has since been biding his time in Portugal, dodging accusations of corruption and murder back home. He told Portuguese radio that he's through with politics and wants nothing more than to be a farmer. "I gave everything I had for the independence of that country. What I want now is to be a normal citizen."

Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti) -- The former Haitian dictator, AKA "Baby Doc," fled in 1986 to France's Cote d'Azur, where he became known for his fast cars and flashy lifestyle. Now, after a costly divorce, he is reportedly broke and in poor health. Few people have seen him since the late 1990s, though he is still thought to be in France. According to Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio, who has met with Duvalier, "He's still hoping to become a semigod in the voodoo firmament once he's dead. It's part of his life and hopes for the future."

In Exile at Home:

P.W. Botha (South Africa) -- The 87-year old former apartheid leader, AKA "The Great Crocodile," lives quietly in a luxury home in a region known appropriately as Wilderness. He refused to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found his government responsible for numerous human-right abuses throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Responding to rumors of his death last year, the unrepentant defender of white rule told the press, "I am sorry to disappoint you."

Augusto Pinochet (Chile) -- There's no place like home for Pinochet, who narrowly escaped being extradited to Spain while visiting England in 1998. He's also been cleared of charges in his native Chile, whose Supreme Court found him too sick to stand trial. However, the 87-year old recently felt well enough to deliver a rousing speech at a luncheon held by the Retired Generals Association, many of whose members are in the dock for human-rights abuses. According to the association's head, Pinochet "called on us to remain united and ... to overcome the problems we are facing."

Efrain Rios Montt (Guatemala) -- As a general in the 1980s, Rios Montt was known for his "scorched earth" tactics against left-wing rebels and civilians suspected of helping them. He took power in a 1982 coup before being removed 18 months later. During his short rule, thousands of people disappeared. Though he was banned from running for public office, he's currently campaigning for president as an "anti-establishment" candidate.

Imelda Marcos (Philippines) -- A popular revolt forced the infamous owner of 3,000 pairs of shoes and her hubby Ferdinand to flee to Hawaii in 1986. Following her husband's death in exile, Marcos returned to the Philippines in 1991. She has since been plagued by financial and legal troubles. She had to sell off her jewels and Swiss banks have agreed to turn over $650 million of her money to the Philippine government. Asked about the wealth she amassed during her husband's two decades of corrupt rule, she quipped, "If you give it back, it means you've stolen it."

Valentine Strasser (Sierra Leone) - In 1992, the 25-year-old army captain overthrew the government, becoming the world's youngest head of state. After torturing and executing political rivals, Strasser was toppled in 1996. He was flown to London in handcuffs, where he briefly attended law school under the auspices of a United Nations peace deal. His four-year exile in England wasn't too cushy: he lived in public housing and was mugged outside a subway station. Life in Freetown, Sierra Leone hasn't been so easy for the formerly baby-faced strongman, either. The government has had to warn its citizens not to throw stones at him during his walks around town.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.