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Habre had 'power of life, death' over Chadians, lawyer tells trial

Habre had 'power of life, death' over Chadians, lawyer tells trial©AFPHissène Habré entering the Tribunal (2015)
2 min 10Approximate reading time

Chad's ex-dictator Hissene Habre had the "power of life and death" over his people, a lawyer for victims of atrocities carried out during his 1980s reign said Monday at his war crimes trial in Senegal.

Habre who was president of the semi-desert central African country from 1982-1990, is charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture -- the first time a despot from one African country has been called to account by another.

The 73-year-old went on trial last July.

On Monday, lawyers representing victims began presenting their closing arguments to the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court established in Dakar by the African Union under an agreement with Senegal.

"The testimony is unanimous. No-one could do anything without taking it up with the President of the Republic," lawyer Yare Fall said, summarising the accounts provided by scores of witnesses, who described the horror of life in Chad's prisons during his watch.

Once backed by France and the US as a bulwark against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi, Habre was toppled in 1990 and went into exile in Senegal, where he was arrested in June 2013.

An investigating commission found that well over 40,000 people were killed during his rule, which was marked by fierce repression of his opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups.

Among the torture described by former prisoners was the "Arbatachar," in which all four limbs were tied behind the victim's back, causing agonising pain and sometimes paralysis.

"People sang about Hissene Habre here, Hissene Habre there, Hissene Habre everwhere. It was he who freed people and he who had them executed," Fall said.

Not only did Habre "not take the necessary measures to prevent crimes being committed" against civilians, he also failed to punish them when they came to light, Fall continued, declaring: "He had the power of life and death over the people of Chad."

Habre, who was ousted by Chad's current President Idriss Deby Itno, has refused to address the court whose authority he does not recognise.

After being manhandled into the opening trial session at which he shouted angry defiance, the bespectacled Habre has sat dressed in white, his face partially covered by a traditional white turban.

He was watched proceedings silent and impassive and immobile, save for the occasional swish of a foot.

- Gestapo-style repression-

Another lawyer representing the victims, Philippe Houssine, said: "Habre put in place for his exclusive use an army and service of repression," in the shape of the feared Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), his political police.

"At his initiative, the DDS, created as an organ of counter-espionage, was transformed into a machine of repression."

For another lawyer, Laminal Ndintamadji, said the whole nation suffered under Habre.

"The all-powerful DDS was like the Gestapo. Every family in Chad lost someone, everyone suffered from this horror," Ndintamadji said.

She urged the court's Burkinabe president Gberdao Gustave Kam: "This is a decimated people -- you have a duty to give them justice."

The 15 plaintiffs' lawyers are expected to finish presenting their closing arguments Tuesday, after which the prosecution and the defendant's court-appointed lawyers will have the floor.

The court is expected to return its verdict in late May, court spokesman Marcel Mendy.

Habre could be sentenced to life imprisonment with forced labour.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month he welcomed the Habre trial as evidence of "the surge in accountability mechanisms" which he saw as "a sea change in ending impunity for atrocious crimes."

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