A court will rule on Monday whether former Chadian president Hissène Habré, known as Africa’s Pinochet, is guilty of a campaign of murder, torture, rape and crimes against humanity during his eight-year regime.
Mr Habré, 73, is a former rebel leader who took power by force in 1982 and was then supported by the US and France to remain at the helm as a bulwark to Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya.
During his time in power, he is accused of personally raping his citizens, imprisoning them in his presidential palace and an underground jail and issuing direct orders to his security services to torture and kill them. Investigators found that at least 40,000 people were killed and 200,000 were tortured during his rule, which was marked by fierce repression of opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups.
The trial, at the Extraordinary African Chambers in the capital of neighbouring Senegal, is the culmination of a 26-year campaign by alleged victims of Mr Habré and his regime and represents the first time the courts of one country have prosecuted the former leader of another for alleged human rights crimes.
The chamber, created in 2013, is also Africa’s attempt to build its own system of continent-wide justice amid criticism that The Hague-based International Criminal Court has unfairly targeted African leaders.
At first there were fears it might not be able to go ahead after Mr Habré, dressed in aviator sunglasses and a giant white turban, had to be dragged in to court by burly policeman, kicking and shouting that the judges were “valets of America”.
“None of the victims, if we are calling them that, ever saw Hissene Habré. They never met him,” said Ibrahima Diawara, Mr Habré’s defence lawyer, who boycotted the trial. However, his client was forced to remain in the dock and eventually fell silent as weeks of testimony about his alleged atrocities were heard.
Witnesses told how they were taken to an underground prison, created from a disused swimming pool, where they suffered electrocution, asphyxiation and burns while women were also kept as “sexual slaves”, one told the trial. They claimed they were subjected to electric shocks and waterboarding while some had gas sprayed into their eyes or spice rubbed into their genitals.
Massa Moire, who was detained by the DDS for three years, was released in 1990. “I still don’t know the reason for my arrest. My wish would be to see Habré sentenced to death. He brought so much pain to so many families,” he said, speaking at the headquarters of a victims’ association in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.
Souleymane Guengueng, another alleged victim whose documentation of scores of cases helped to build a case against the former president, told how he was forced into a cell so small he could barely turn around. He said he stopped breathing three times in the suffocating heat and was lucky to survive.
“During two and a half years in prison, I saw my friends, my fellow inmates, die from hunger, despair, torture and disease,” he said. “From the depths of my cell, I swore to God to fight for justice if I got out alive.”
Others who testified included experts on the mortality rate in Chad’s prisons, forensic teams that dug up mass graves, a French doctor who treated almost 600 victims, a handwriting expert who identified Mr Habre’s writing on police documents and a former DDS agent who told how the police director went to the president every day with documents for him to sign.
If convicted, Mr Habré can expect a sentence of between 30 years and life with hard labour, that will be served in Senegal, where he fled after he was deposed by Chad’s current president, or another African Union country.
“It took 25 years of relentless campaigning by Hissene Habré’s victims to make this trial happen,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch who has worked since 1999 to bring the case to court.
“The trial is a watershed in the fight for accountability for the world’s worst crimes.”