African ‘legal soap opera’ nears end as Chadian ex-dictator faces verdict
A Senegalese court on Monday is set to rule in the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for alleged crimes against humanity committed during his 1982-1990 rule marking a historic end to a decades-long quest for justice.
The ruling will mark the first time in the world that the courts of one country will prosecute the former ruler of another country.
More than 90 witnesses have testified in the trial, which began in July last year. Habré is accused of having presided over 40,000 political murders and widespread torture in his Central African homeland. A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission singled out the brutal police force under the former rebel leader-turned-president for some of the worst atrocities during Habré’s reign.
Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for Habré.
Habré has dismissed the tribunal as politically motivated. During the course of the trial, the former rebel leader and his supporters have frequently disrupted proceedings with shouting and singing. He refused legal representation but the court appointed him Senegalese lawyers.
A documentary on the former Chadian strongman, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, featured extraordinary closing footage of the former rebel-turned-despot being forcibly carried into the courtroom, kicking and screaming.
Habré's trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture by the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese courts is also viewed as Africa's first attempt to build its own system of continent-wide justice amid criticism that the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) has unfairly targeted African leaders.
"This case was not started by a prosecutor in the Hague, or by the [UN] Security Council. The architects, the visionaries of this case, are the Chadian victims themselves and their supporters," said Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who has been closely involved in the case for over 15 years, told the AFP.
Archives detail gruesome police work
Habré was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, but legal twists and turns over a decade saw the case go to Belgium and then finally back to Senegal after unwavering pursuit by the survivors and their supporters.
Stephen Rapp, a former US diplomat and international prosecutor also involved in tribunals for Sierra Leone and Rwanda, said the strong evidence was another key factor in this precedent-setting trial.
In 2001, the police force's archives were discovered on the floor of its headquarters in Chad, records that went back to Habré's rule and which mention more than 12,000 victims of Chad's detention network.
The survivors "had the strong evidence in hand and the crucial thing that was needed was an independent court that would have the competence and jurisdiction to take this on," Rapp said, adding that this is what they asked the international community for and, with continued efforts, achieved. "Without that strong evidence and without the dedicated and persistent and determined efforts of these survivors, this would not have been possible."
Rapp said gathering such extensive documentation efforts can serve as an example for places like Syria and Iraq. Such participation of victims in a trial, with international and African support, is promising for future prosecution efforts on the continent, he said.
An example for victims around the world
Chad's government, run by President Idriss Déby, who served as Habré's military adviser and pushed him from power, is supporting the trial.
However there were many twists and turns in the long road to get Habré to justice, including allegations that the Senegalese government was reluctant to try the Chadian former leader due to political considerations.
In a July 2011 interview with FRANCE 24, Brody noted that “it’s no secret that when Hissène Habré left Chad, he emptied out the country’s treasury and has used the money to build himself a web of protection in Senegal.”
Over the past two decades, Habre’s legal team has included the current Senegalese foreign minister, Madické Niang, as well as current Senegalese Prime Minister Souleymane Ndéné Ndiaye, noted Brody.
The current tribunal, led by Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam, is expected to deliver the verdict and sentence Monday. If Habré is found guilty, a second set of hearings on damages for the more than 4,000 registered civil parties will take place.
"It's truly a great example for all the others victims around the world, particularly in Africa, to no longer remain silent," Guengueng told the AFP. "It's the people in charge who must now be afraid.”
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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