DAKAR, SENEGAL - The lawyers for former Chad dictator Hissene Habre finished their closing arguments Thursday by dismissing the credibility of testimony and reports that placed direct blame on the leader for the deaths of thousands during his rule.
Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for Habre, who faces charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes in an unprecedented trial in which one African country is prosecuting the former ruler of another. The Extraordinary African Chambers was established by Senegal and the African Union to try Habre in Dakar.
The trial, pushed for decades by the victims of abuses during Habre's 1982-90 rule, is seen by them as due justice.
Mounir Ballal, one of three Senegalese lawyers assigned to Habre after his legal team refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court, pleaded not guilty for Habre. The former leader sat silently, as he has throughout the trial, wearing sunglasses and wrapped in a crisp white turban that covers his mouth.
"We call into question the personal responsibility of the president relative to the charges brought against him, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture,'' Ballal told The Associated Press. He called the argument that Habre would be solely responsible because he was president "too easy'' and cited contradictions in witness testimonies.
According to a 1992 report by a Chadian truth commission formed by Chad's current leader, President Idriss Deby, Habre's government was responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths. The commission particularly blamed Habre's political police force, the Directorate of Documentation and Security, saying it used torture methods including whipping, beating, burning and the extraction of fingernails.
In 2001, police archives found in Chad documented more than 12,000 victims.
'Machine of repression'
"Habre is directly responsible for the creation of a machine of repression and terror,'' Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer for the nearly 4,500 civil parties in the lawsuit, told the AP. "He controlled this machine that arrested people without reason, detained them arbitrarily and illegally, and carried out executions.''
Senegal prosecutor Mbacke Fall spoke of secret prisons created by Habre and recommended that the former leader get life in prison and that seized assets be confiscated.
The defense, however, argued that instability in Chad forced Habre to create the DDS, because he was a nationalist.
"This man who ruled for eight years and knew six wars, conspiracies everywhere — what else would motivate him to create the DDS?'' Ballal said.
After being overthrown, Habre fled to Senegal, where he lived a life of luxury until he was detained and charged in 2013.
His is the first trial in Africa of a universal jurisdiction case, in which a country's national courts can prosecute the most serious crimes committed abroad by a foreigner against foreign victims, Human Rights Watch said.
Defense lawyers, however, have dismissed the tribunal as a political tool of Habre's enemies, emphasizing that the government of Deby, who removed Habre from office, is the court's largest donor.
Burkina Faso Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam, who is presiding over the trial, said Thursday that a verdict would be issued by May 30.