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Chad's former dictator under trial

July 20, 2015

History in the making: The trial against Chad's former dictator Hissene Habre has started in Senegal. Africa's "Pinochet" is accused of being responsible for the death of some 40,000 people.

Hissene Habre
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Seyllou

It's a revolution: For the first time a former head of state from sub-Saharan Africa is standing trial before a court in Africa. On Monday, Chad's ex-dictator Hissene Habre had his first day before the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal. The 72-year-old is accused of war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity committed during his tenure as president.

His case sets a precedent, because all similar cases were referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This does not apply to Habre. According to prosecutors, he committed his crimes before 2002. According to it's mandate, the ICC can only investigate cases that were committed after that.

Victims hope for justice at last

Victims of Habre's dictatorship are now hopeful that justice will be finally done. "I was arrested in 1985", says Nadjingaye Toura Ngaba. He lives in Chad‘s capital N'Djamena. He spent two years in prison.

The African Union created the Extraordinary African Chambers
Victims hope that justice will be deliveredImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Blackwell

"Every day they tortured me with beatings and electric shocks, I still have the scars". Ngaba cannot go to attend the procedings. Dakar is more than four thousand kilometers away from N'Djamena. "But my friends are there and that makes me happy. It is as if I was there myself."

Hissene Habre ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. He founded the DDS (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité), a notorious police force that terrorized the people. Human rights organizations say some 40,000 people were killed. Habre was nicknamed "the Pinochet of Africa"

From Monday, about 2,500 witnesses will testify against the former dictator. The panel of judges includes Gustave Kam Gberdao from Burkina Faso. The other two are from Senegal.

Habre does not recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal. He is under custody in Dakar. Before the trial, he announced that he would stay away from the procedings. On Monday, security officers forcibly let him into the court room. After shouting from his supporters, he was ushered out.

High expectations

Souleymane Guengueng is one of the victims who has come to Dakar. He too, was once tortured by Habre's henchmen. After the fall of the dictator, he teamed up with other victims. Together they secured evidence, interviewed relatives of victims and collected testimonies. He has been fighting for this trial for 25 years, he says. "Now the time has come when the whole world will know what Habre and his police did to the Chadian people." He does not want revenge, but justice, he says.

the hearing was conducted under tight security
The hearing attracted both victims and supporters of HabreImage: Getty Images/AFP/Seyllou

Many Chadians still suffer from the violence during Habre's rule. They are watching the case with keen interest.

"It is also about us, the sons and daughters of this country," says Palpal Galilé. He is a student of politics and law at the University of N‘Djamena, Chad's capital. "Indirectly, we have also become victims." He hopes that this trial will be impartial.

His girlfriend Gislaine agrees with him. "When I was a little girl, I saw the terrible things Habré did to people in Chad. That is why it is right that he pays for it."

Senegalese sociologist Marie Angélique Savané believes that the trial will give Habre's victims some relief.

Habre was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in the year 2000. But twists and turns prevented the start of a trial. The Senegalese government even blocked attempts by the Belgian government which wanted to try him in 2005. In 2014, Habre was finally arrested - apparently because the Senegalese authorities were under pressure from the United States.

Nevertheless, Senegalese history professor Penda Mbow believes that the justice system in her country is up to the task. "Senegal is more suitable for this process than other countries," she told DW in an interview. "We hope for a fair trial which will not only strengthen the image of Africa's judiciary, but the justice system as well."