DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — A special tribunal in Senegal has charged former Chad dictator Hissene Habre with war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture over atrocities committed during his eight-year rule, his French lawyer said Tuesday.
The charges were handed down at the end of a two-hour meeting at the Extraordinary African Chambers, said Francois Serres said. The court was inaugurated earlier this year to prosecute Habre after more than two decades of living freely in Senegal.
Habre ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. Human rights and victims groups say that soon after coming to power, he promoted members of his Gorane ethnic group to head a ruthless torture and killing apparatus targeting members of other ethnic groups that threatened his rule.
He was removed from office in 1990 in a military coup, fleeing to Senegal. Over the next 20 years, as Senegalese authorities resisted attempts to try him, Habre became a symbol of impunity and an uncomfortable reminder of Africa’s unwillingness to hold its leaders accountable.
Paramilitary police arrested Habre from his home in Dakar on Sunday, a move his defense team branded a “kidnapping.”
Victims’ representatives on Tuesday praised the decision to charge Habre.
“This is the first victory for the victims,” said Jacqueline Moudeina, lawyer for the victims and president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH). “The charging of Habre is a culmination of our 22 years of campaigning for justice.”
Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, who has worked with Habre’s victims since 1999, called the charges a “stunning victory.”
“Today’s arrest is a message to dictators around the world who think about embarking on mass murder that they will never be out of the reach of their victims,” he said.
In May 1992, a 10-member Chadian truth commission formed by President Idriss Deby, who came to power following Habre’s ouster, reported that Habre’s government was responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths.
The commission placed particular blame against the Directorate of Documentation and Security, Habre’s political police force, which “distinguished itself by its cruelty and its contempt for human life.” It employed torture methods that included whippings, beatings, burning and the extraction of fingernails, the panel reported. One technique involved forcing a victim to put his mouth around the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle, causing severe burns when the motor was accelerated.
Serres said Tuesday that the prosecution did not have time to conduct a proper investigation and had relied on evidence presented by Deby’s government, which he said would not stand up in court. He said Habre’s lawyers were not allowed to present evidence during Tuesday’s hearing.
“The objection is that President Habre was kidnapped at his house by police officers and forced, on the order of the general prosecutor of the chambers, to be detained for two days without any right to counsel,” Serres said. “He was brought today to the court, and the court confirmed the charges without giving a chance to the defense lawyers to present the defense, to review the file, or to examine the charges.”