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Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre put on trial for atrocities

Twenty five years after the end of his bloodsoaked reign of terror at home Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre was put in the dock on Monday in a trial seen as a test case for African justice.

world Updated: Jul 20, 2015 19:48 IST
Chadian dictator,Senegal,Hissene Habre
A file picture of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre gesturing as he leaves a Dakar courthouse after an identity hearing on June 3, 2015. (AFP Photo)

Twenty five years after the end of his bloodsoaked reign of terror at home Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre was put in the dock on Monday in a trial seen as a test case for African justice.

Once dubbed "Africa's Pinochet", the 72-year-old has been in custody in Senegal since his arrest in June 2013 at the home he shared in an affluent suburb of Dakar with his wife and children.

Dressed in white robes and a turban, Habre pumped a fist in the air and cried "God is greatest" as he was escorted by prison guards into the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital.

He had said he did not recognise the court's jurisdiction and vowed that he and his lawyers would play no part, but was forced into the dock by prison guards.

The president of the chamber, Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, announced that the military strongman was not represented as he opened proceedings.

Habre backed during his presidency by France and the United States as a bulwark against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi is on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad from 1982 to 1990.

Several supporters, mostly young, screamed slogans condemning the trial in the lobby of the Dakar courthouse and were thrown out by police.

"I am sad, I am ashamed. This is happening in a country like Senegal," one of Habre's supporters said, describing the defendant as "a liberator of Chad".

Rights groups say 40,000 Chadians were killed under a regime propped up by fierce crackdowns on opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups he perceived as a threat to his stranglehold on the central African nation.

Historic precedent

Delayed for years by Senegal, the trial has set a historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried in international courts.

Senegal and the African Union signed an agreement in December 2012 to set up a court to bring Habre to justice.

The AU had mandated Senegal to try Habre in July 2006, but the country stalled the process for years under former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was defeated in 2012 elections.

Macky Sall, Wade's successor who took office in April 2012 vowed to organise a trial in Senegal.

"This is the first case anywhere in the world -- not just in Africa -- where the courts of one country, Senegal, are prosecuting the former leader of another, Chad, for alleged human rights crimes," Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told AFP.

Brody described the trial as a "test case for African justice", adding that it was the first time that the concept of "universal jurisdiction" -- that a suspect can be prosecuted for their past crimes wherever in the world they find themselves -- had been implemented in Africa.

"So there are a lot of historical aspects to this. But, for me, the most important kind of thing is that it is the survivors who have pushed for 25 years," he added.

Justice in Africa

The Extraordinary African Chambers were set up by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the "person or persons" most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad during Habre's rule.

The chambers indicted Habre in July 2013 and placed him in pre-trial custody while four investigating judges spent 19 months interviewing some 2,500 witnesses and victims and analysing thousands of documents.

Around 100 witnesses will testify during hearings expected to last around three months, although 4,000 people have been registered as victims in the case.

"When we began this case, when we started working with the victims -- I started in 1999 -- one of the victims said to Human Rights Watch 'since when has justice come all the way to Chad?'," Brody told AFP.

"The African Union saw the importance of being able to show that you can have justice in Africa," he added.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein described the opening of the trial as a "milestone for justice in Africa".

"This shows that leaders accused of serious crimes should not assume they can evade justice forever," he said.

First Published: Jul 20, 2015 19:40 IST