Former Chad ruler awaits ruling in landmark human rights trial


Chad’s former ruler Hissene Habre faces a three-month wait to learn his fate after a landmark human rights trial in Senegal at which victims gave harrowing accounts of arbitrary detention, torture and prisoners being forced to dig mass graves.

Prosecutors recommended life in prison during closing arguments to the court this week if Habre is convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. Defence lawyers were addressing the court on Thursday, and the three judges are expected to rule in May.

Habre ruled from 1982 to 1990, when he fled into exile in Senegal. Two years later, a truth commission in Chad said 40,000 acts of political murder and torture occurred during his tenure, mostly by his feared Documentation and Security Directorate.

It is the first time one country’s domestic courts have tried a former leader of another on human rights charges, and activists say this route could provide an alternative to the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague.

That matters in Africa, where some leaders criticise the ICC as neo-colonial for focusing heavily on abuses committed on the continent, and some countries have threatened to leave.
“From a justice perspective, from a victim perspective, I think it was a model trial,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who worked on the case for 15 years. “It happened because the victims never gave up.”

Nearly 100 victims and experts have testified since the trial began last July. Prosecutors argued Habre, at one time feted by Washington as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, bore ultimate responsibility.
“It is not a crime to create an intelligence centre,” prosecutor Mbacke Fall told the court on Wednesday. “The crime is to use that intelligence centre to commit abuses.”

Some victims told the court their arms and legs were tied behind their back and they were given electric shocks. Others said intelligence agents tortured them by pumping gas into their bodies, said victims’ lawyer Philippe Houssine.

Habre boycotted the trial initially, with his lawyers saying it was illegitimate and biased against him. He shouted “Shut up!” as a clerk read the indictment. Since then he has sat in court wearing a white robe, matching turban and sunglasses, and rarely speaking.