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Chad Trial Hears Torture Testimony

  • Joe DeCapua

Clement Abaifouta, president of the association of victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré , wipes away tears while listening to fellow victims recount their stories, at a press conference in Dakar, Senegal, Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Abaifouta, arrested in 1985, said he was forced for four years to dig graves for hundreds of prisoners. A lawyer said more than 1,000 victims of Habré have formally asked to participate in his trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Clement Abaifouta, president of the association of victims of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré , wipes away tears while listening to fellow victims recount their stories, at a press conference in Dakar, Senegal, Wednesday, July 17, 2013. Abaifouta, arrested in 1985, said he was forced for four years to dig graves for hundreds of prisoners. A lawyer said more than 1,000 victims of Habré have formally asked to participate in his trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

A rights group says ongoing testimony in Chad confirms that torture was widely used during the rule of Hissène Habré from 1982 to 1990. Twenty-one former security agents are on trial. So far, about 50 people have testified against them.

The former security agents are charged with murder, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and assault and battery. Their trial began November 14th, but was suspended a week later due to a lawyers’ strike. It resumed on December 23rd and is expected to end later this month.

Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody is in the capital N’Djaména and has attended many of the court sessions. He described the trial as Chad’s “rendezvous with history.”

He said, “For the first time after 24 years, the abuses of the Hissène Habré government are being presented in court for all to hear – for Chadian people to watch – for the victims finally to get their day in court and talk about the abuses that happened so long ago.”

Brody said victims or their families had been trying for over 20 years to get justice. The Chadian government took action only after Habré – who had fled to Senegal – was arrested there and indicted in 2013. His trial could begin in May.

Brody said the 21 defendants, including those who were in charge, are just a few of those allegedly involved.

“Of course there were many people who were involved in Hissène Habré’s political police, but the people who are on trial here are considered to be 21 of the most important agents among those who are still alive. Just two years ago, many of these people were still government officials and security officials in the new government that replaced Habré.”

The courtroom is filled every day with spectators. Brody said there was a dramatic moment Wednesday when a video was played.

“The court showed a video of mass graves and the inside of Habré’s prison – emaciated prisoners being released after Habré’s fall. And people were crying. It was quite amazing to see this. You had the accused who were forced to sit there and watch it -- and you had the public and you had many widows crying. And some of this then was then played on national television, as well,” he said.

While Habré has been accused of targeting certain ethnic groups, Brody said it goes well beyond that.

“People here say that there’s not a family that was not touched by the abuses of the Habré government. So you see Christians and Muslims. You see people from the north and from the south. You see people from really all different ethnic groups, who are presenting themselves to the court as victims.”

Prior to the trial of the former security agents, Human Rights Watch had called the investigation “hasty” and lacking a “solid record on each defendant.”

The trial is being conducted under French rules and is presided over by three professional judges and two lay jurors. All the accused have testified, but the trial is now in – what’s called – the confrontation stage. That’s when defendants face each other after giving contradictory testimony.

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