On October 29 in Dakar, the special African court trying former Chadian president Hissène Habré suspended its hearings until November 9. The former strongman of N’Djamena is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture committed in his country under his regime.
The hearings will resume with more testimonies from witnesses against Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, when he was ousted and fled to Senegal. His rule was marked by repression enforced by his feared political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Under its initial calendar, the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC, the court trying Habré) planned a three-month trial, with presentation of the prosecution and defence cases completed by October 30. However, this soon appeared unrealistic as witness testimonies took longer than expected. No member of the EAC will venture to estimate a new date for the end of the trial “because it is the first time a former African head of state is being tried in Africa”. The trial started on July 20, with Africa and the international community hoping it will be exemplary.
The trial suspension ordered by the court president is to allow the parties to rest after long and tiring days of testimonies, examinations and cross-examinations by prosecutors and Habré’s court-assigned defence lawyers.
This adjournment is the second since the trial started on July 20. At the end of that day it was postponed to September 7, because Habré was refusing to defend himself before the EAC, whose legality he contests.
At the start of trial when he was brought to court by force, Habré denounced what he called French and American “imperialism and neo-colonialism” and said his trial was a “masquerade”. Since then, the white-turbaned former president has chosen silence as his weapon of defence.
Habré was arrested at his Dakar home on June 30, 2013 and charged two days later with war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.
40,000 dead, 4,000 civil parties
The crimes of which he is accused are extremely serious, judging by the number of victims. A Chadian investigation committee accuses the regime of killing some 40,000 people, while 4,000 direct or indirect victims are civil parties in this case.
The judges have conducted four rogatory commissions to Chad, heard some 2,500 witnesses and victims, and above all examined the archives of the DDS, Habré’s infamous political police.
The testimonies given before the court up to now give an idea of the hell on earth that was Chad during this dark chapter of the country’s history.
Torture, assassinations, sexual abuse and summary executions are some of the innumerable charges blackening the Habré case.
“Out of modesty, I cannot tell the suffering I went through in Ouadi-Doum (northern Chad),” Hawa Brahim Faraj told the court on October 21. Aged 13, she was arrested on June 6, 1985 by soldiers who had come seeking her mother, a trader. Failing to find her mother, they took her, she says, and locked her up in N’Djamena, then in Ouadi-Doum. Her mother, who was accused of being a “Libyan agent”, was also arrested later and imprisoned. With war raging against the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, being a “Libyan agent” was the worst offence, used as a catch-all accusation against real or supposed enemies and troublesome political opponents.
Khatoulma Deffalah, a former air hostess with Air Afrique, was arrested, she believes, because of her Hadjaraï (ethnic minority viewed unfavourably by the Habré regime) origins. She also says she was a “sexual object” of the soldiers.
Rape, forced abortions and various forms of maltreatment were the lot of these women, whose testimonies had sometimes to be wrenched from them by Prosecutor Mbacké Fall when the EAC presiding judge was too embarrassed to speak plainly.
Habré accused of raping a woman four times
But the testimony that caused the most drama was that of Khadija Hassan Zidane on October 19. She accuses Hissène Habré of having himself raped her four times within the premises of the presidential palace. The former president, who had been impassive up to then, greeted this accusation with a nervous movement of one of his feet.
Some of the accusers nevertheless had some difficult moments in cross-examination by Habré’s court-assigned lawyers. The defence lawyers tried mainly to demonstrate that the client they are defending against his will was not aware of the abuses committed by agents of his DDS.
“Did you once hear Hissène Habré supporting or approving the killings and tortures?” one of the lawyers asked a witness who was a high-ranking civil servant at the time of the alleged crimes.
“No, I never heard Hissène Habré give clear instructions encouraging massacres,” replied the witness, who said he was nevertheless convinced the ex-president could not have been unaware of the abuses.
Another high point of the trial was the series of testimonies by forensic experts who concluded in their report that there were criminal assassinations by shots from an AK 47 assault rifle, at least in most of the cases they examined. The multi-skilled team presented a host of evidence supporting their findings, illustrated by slides. The pieces of evidence included clothing and coins.
Forensic doctor Pierre Perich said they had found that “the bones recovered and holes in the clothing correspond perfectly with penetrations by bullets. That can demonstrate to anyone who wishes that the victims received a certain amount of projectiles in their bodies”. These conclusions were corroborated by his colleagues, ballistics expert José Emmanuel and forensic dentist José Luis Prieto.