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PARIS — The day she was meant to be killed, the lawyer had gathered with a group of other women in Ndjamena, the capital of Chad, to protest electoral fraud. She heard someone call her name, then saw a man pointing at her. Seconds later, a grenade exploded at her feet.
Threats and obstacles have been part of Jacqueline Moudeina’s life since she and a handful of other advocates set out to bring to justice the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, and his henchmen, who terrorized the country throughout the 1980s.
The murder attempt on June 11, 2001, almost ended her mission. Doctors in France worked for a year to repair her burns and fractures and save her legs from amputation. X-rays show that her body is still pocked with shrapnel. She was left nearly deaf in one ear, she walks with a limp, and chronic pains often exhaust her.
“The grenade became a challenge for me, to live and continue the legal work, and so I did,” Ms. Moudeina said during a recent visit to Paris for a screening of a new documentary about the dark years of the Habré dictatorship. The film, “Talking About Rose,” directed by Isabel Coixet, tells the stories of people who remember his prisons firsthand.
Ms. Moudeina, 58, is no ordinary lawyer. Fifteen years ago, she filed the first complaint against Mr. Habré on behalf of his victims. Now she is widely credited with playing a central role in bringing him before a special international court in Dakar, Senegal, where he will go on trial on Monday.
Mr. Habré is charged with murder and torture. A truth commission concluded in 1992, two years after he was overthrown, that more than 40,000 perceived enemies of the state were killed during his eight-year rule. He lived in comfortable exile in Dakar for years, but in 2013, a new Senegalese government bent to international pressure and ordered his arrest.
“That news was our first high point,” Ms. Moudeina recalled. “This man was considered like god on earth. Until today, some of our people can’t believe he is in prison. Do we really know for sure, they ask.”
She replies that she saw him in detention herself, during a pretrial hearing before a judge in Senegal last year. She attended it along with several witnesses.
“I knew I was finally sitting in front of an executioner,” she recalled. “Our eyes met a few times. But I felt nothing.”
Ms. Moudeina and the victims’ association that she heads had a second high point, as she put it, in March. A court in Chad finally took up a complaint she filed in 2000, and then unexpectedly convicted 20 former officials, almost all of them from the powerful secret police. They were given prison sentences and ordered to pay restitution.
“This was victory over many obstacles,” Ms. Moudeina said. “The government tried to stall and stall. The investigating judges were changed four times. Documents went missing from the files. I went to court every day, asking and pushing.”
Along the way, her office was ransacked, her car was stolen, and she was often threatened by anonymous callers at night. “Different voices were telling me, drop those cases if you want to live.”
Suleyman Guengueng, a political prisoner during the Habré years who was tortured over a period of two years, said by telephone that Ms. Moudeina “amazes people — she’s made of steel.”
That steeliness can rub some people the wrong way. People who have worked with her say that she can be short-tempered and inflexible, and that she finds it difficult to trust people.
The campaign to prosecute Mr. Habré, who was a trusted Cold War ally of the United States and France, has found significant international support.Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, provided advice to the Chadian lawyers and victims involved in the effort and found them grant money. Support and funds have also come from groups in Europe. But by many accounts it was Ms. Moudeina’s courage and determination that made the difference.
“This is a woman who has given years to bring Habré and his accomplices to court, even risked her own life,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, who has worked closely with Ms. Moudeina for more than a decade. “She is intransigent, incorruptible. She is driven.”
Her upbringing was a privileged one by the standards of Chad, a vast place of deserts and subsistence farms whose 11 million people speak dozens of different languages and mostly cannot read or write.
Though she is part of the country’s small elite, she has had her share of setbacks. Her father, a well-known physician, died abruptly before she was born; the family believed he was poisoned. She lost her mother at age 11 and was raised by her maternal grandmother.
It takes some prodding to get her to talk about her days as a defiant teenager who once complained to a white teacher at the Sacre Coeur school in Ndjamena about racial prejudice in grading. “She told me, in any case, you will remain a black — and that’s when I slapped her in the face,” Ms. Moudeina recalled. When she was suspended for two weeks, she said, she kept up with her lessons by listening at the school’s open windows.
She and her former husband, a journalist, fled to the Republic of Congo when war raged in Chad in the 1980s, and she studied law in Brazzaville. They returned to Chad after Mr. Habré’s ouster, and she began representing an association of his government’s victims. “Many people still don’t understand why they were thrown in jail or tortured,” she said. “They want to find a reason for all the suffering.”
She said she was often followed by shadowy men. “It’s useless to be frightened,” she said in a Paris restaurant during her visit. “You cannot function. They already tried to kill me once.”
She prodded at a plate of noodles and shrimp. “We eat a lot of noodles at home, and rice,” she said with a smile. “My house is always full.” Though she has no children of her own, she said, “there are always six or eight children living in the house — relatives send them without asking, because they think I am a rich and powerful person. The idea is that I feed them and give them an education. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed, but it’s the tradition.”
She spoke proudly about a prestigious international honor, the Right Livelihood Award, which she was given in 2011 for her work. Then she added: “Many people are against me. I am blacklisted by the government, and I can’t visit the prisons. Some people spread ugly rumors.”
Those rumors include claims that she has exploited her clients to become wealthy, a notion that made her scoff. “I can barely manage my life,” she said. “My reward is that I can be the voice for people who have no voice. I can never buy that, or even be paid for it.”