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The trial of Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, opened in Senegal on Monday, marking the first time in Africa’s history that a court from one country has tried the former ruler of another for crimes against humanity.
The start of the trial concludes a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former dictator to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup.
Habré, backed by Washington as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s, is blamed by rights groups for widespread torture and the killing of up to 40,000 people during the eight years he ruled Chad.
“This is a chance to show that an African court can deliver justice for African victims for crimes committed in Africa,” said Reed Brody, a legal advisor with Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has pursued the Habré case since 1999.
“It’s one thing to complain about having abusive African presidents sent to The Hague. It’s another thing to show that they can be prosecuted and get a fair trial here in Africa,” he said.
The proceedings, due to last around three months, will be heard by a Special African Chamber (CAE) created in 2013 by Senegal and the African Union.
Bringing Habré to court
The case turns on whether Habré, fêted at the White House in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan after expelling Libyan forces from Chad, ordered the large-scale assassination and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of up to 40,000 political murders and systematic torture, mostly by his feared intelligence police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Habré and his lawyers intend to boycott the trial, saying there has been no due process. They say the 72-year-old has a heart condition, though the court could still oblige him to attend.
“In this affair from the outset it has been Hissène Habré is guilty and let’s find evidence that justifies this,” said his lawyer Ibrahima Diawara. “None of the victims, if we are calling them that, ever saw Hissène Habré. They never met him.”
HRW says its investigation in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandoned DDS headquarters updating Habré on the status of detainees.
“Just in these documents are the names of 1,208 prisoners who died; 12,341 victims of arbitrary detention and torture,” Brody told FRANCE 24. “He wasn’t some distant ruler who left it to others. He was being informed of the most minute details of the lives of prisoners.”
A court handwriting expert confirmed margin notes on one document to be Habré’s.
Habré’s trial may not have happened without Chadian lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, who filed a complaint against the former dictator 15 years ago and has faced repeated threats, or the efforts of thousands of victims like Souleymane Guengueng.
Guengueng, a former accountant who spent two years in Habré’s prisons, secretly compiled evidence of crimes after his fall. The 66-year-old is among some 100 victims due to testify at the trial and wants to look Habré in the eye.
“In prison when I saw my colleagues dying and the enormous suffering they inflicted on us … I made a vow to God that if he kept me alive, I would not let these things pass in silence,” he said.
A historic case
A successful trial of Habré leading to a credible verdict would strengthen African countries’ case that they are best placed to try their own.
Up until now, cases like Habré’s have been mostly tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Although many African governments embraced the ICC when it was first established in 2002, attitudes towards the largely European-funded court have shifted amid criticism that it hasdisproportionately focused its attention on Africa, prompting many to label it a Western-controlled, neo-colonial institution.
Yet the establishment of the CAE court in Senegal was due partly to prodding from the ICC’s European backers. The ICC itself can only try crimes committed after it was established.
After Habré was detained in 2000, Senegal’s courts ruled they were not competent to try a case from another country.
Habré wielded considerable influence within then-president Abdoulaye Wade’s government. Two of his lawyers were ministers.
Finally, an investigation by a Belgian judge forced the issue back onto the agenda. An African Union summit in 2007 rejected an extradition request from Belgium and mandated Senegal to try Habré.
Even after Senegal approved ‘universal jurisdiction’ enabling it to prosecute rights crimes committed elsewhere, Wade’s government dragged its heels until Belgium secured a 2012 ruling from the UN’s highest court ordering Senegal to put Habré on trial or extradite him. The new government of President Macky Sall in Senegal made the prosecution a priority.