The former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre has been charged with crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes. He went on
trial last July in a special court, the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), which was set up in Dakar by the African Union under an agreement with Senegal.
The 73-year-old is accused of presiding over a network of secret police known as the Department of Documentation and Security (DDS) and giving direct orders for torture and punishment.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habre’s government of systematic torture and said 40,000 people died during his reign.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) discovered a cache of DDS files by chance at the abandoned DDS headquarters in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena. More than 12,300 victims were mentioned in the recovered documents including 1,208 individuals who died in detention.
Habre denies all the charges against him, and his defense lawyers have suggested he was unaware of the abuses.
After a 19-month investigation, the judges found that there was sufficient evidence for Habre to face trial.
Bumpy road for the victims
“It took 25 years of relentless campaigning by Hissene Habre victims to make this trial happen,” Reed Brody said, a HRW counsel who has worked with the victims since 1999. “The Hissene Habre trial is a watershed in the fight for accountability for the world’s worst crimes,” he added.
Assane Dioma Ndiaye, who is part of the legal team representing the victims and the president of the Senegalese League for Human Rights said she felt optimistic for the verdict.
“I think we must be confident, especially in light of the expectations of our thousands and thousands of clients,” he said. “The evidence we have collected comes from the DDS, so we cannot be accused of having fabricated evidence.”
No cooperation with court
Habre has refused to speak or cooperate with the EAC and rejects the court’s authority. He is being represented by a court-appointed defense team after dismissing his own lawyers.
Mounir Ballal is one of three lawyers on Habre’s defense team. The last time he saw Habre was at the end of his trial in February after the testimony from 93 witnesses and hearing the final arguments.
“One might think that [former] President Habre’s silence could work against him. I don’t think so,” he said.
Guilty or not guilty?
However, Dakar residents are divided over the fate of the former Chadian ruler. “I think Habre is innocent. The current Chadian President [Idriss] Deby played a key role in his arrest,” Ibou Diouf told DW.
Others disagree. “In light of how the trial went, I think he will be sentenced to 20 years in prison,” another Dakar resident said.
Habre was taken into custody in Senegal where he fled in December 1990, after being ousted in a coup led by the current Chadian President Deby.
Habre could now be facing life imprisonment and forced labor.
The proceedings are widely seen as a test for the fight against impunity in Africa. It is the first time that an African former head of state is tried by an African court. This could set a precedent, especially since African leaders have accused the International Court of Justice based in the Netherlands of being biased against African leaders.
Emmanuelle Landais in Dakar contributed to this report.