Hissène Habré: Fair trial is crucial despite courtroom theatre

21 July 2015 marked my 29th anniversary working at Amnesty International and also marked the opening of the trial of former Chadian President Hissene Habré. When I joined Amnesty International in 1986, I was immediately struck by the amount of work already undertaken by colleagues on Chad since 1982, when President Hissène Habré came to power. I joined the team, part of my job was meeting people and collecting testimonies, which Amnesty International then turned into reports, press releases and actions, to shine a light on these grave human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances. Many of these were produced in the period from 1982 to 1990, when Hissène Habré’s rule ended.

Over the past decades, my colleagues and I met and spoke with so many of the victims of the Habré administration. The dream of many of them did not, unfortunately, come true as they did not live to see him finally face a court this week.

On Monday and Tuesday I was at the court room in the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar, Senegal, and witnessed how many people attended the opening of this trial on charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes committed while he was in power.

Gaetan Mootoo

 Victims were among those there, hoping to see the court put an end to 25 years of impunity for human rights violations and crimes under international law committed under Habré’s watch.

After his fall from power, so many survivors expressed fears that they would die whilst awaiting this trial. In particular I can remember Samuel Togoto, one person whom I interviewed shortly before his death and who alleged that he had been beaten and tortured in prison – an untimely death because he never received justice. He is not the only one; other victims have sadly passed away. I can also remember the image of Mahamat Sidi Baby, a former army officer who told Amnesty International that he had been tortured in detention; during his interrogation he was given electric shocks and he was subjected to the “supplice des baguettes”, which made his nose bleed profusely. He often had tea in my office; he was very disheartened and was receiving medical attention following his detention.

According to the National Commission of Inquiry in Chad, 40,000 people are estimated to have died at the hands of Habré’s security forces, and many more were tortured. I can recall many testimonies of this torture. One such method includes a technique called “Arbatachar” where the victim’s arms are tied behind his or her back at elbow level, pushing the torso forward, and then the feet and the arms are also tied together. One detainee was left in this contorted position for five excruciating hours.

After the fall of Habré’s administration, more than 50,000 letters and postcards from Amnesty International members were found at the main security headquarters in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, known as Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS). The National Commission of Enquiry confirms the existence of these letters and postcards and even details the countries from which they came. It also states that the number of postcards and letters sent may even be higher as a number of them were destroyed by the authorities. They demanded that Chadian authorities, including Hissène Habré, end the human rights violations that had been rampant during his rule.

When I arrived at the trial on Monday, I saw some of the victims, grave yet determined, hoping, finally to see justice. They are older than when last I saw them. On Tuesday, I also saw the disappointment on their faces when the trial was adjourned until September after Habré and his lawyers refused to speak to the judge. The court has now appointed three new lawyers to represent him. The courtroom was full to the brim and my thoughts went immediately to the victims who had travelled from near and far to be present for this trial and who have waited over 25 long years to see justice delivered. It was also strange to see diplomats, in the courtroom, from countries that provided military support, including training and security equipment, to Hisséne Habré’s administration and which could therefore have contributed to the human rights violations committed.

With the adjournment of the trial, many are understandably frustrated. However it is only fair that the state-appointed lawyers have time to study this case. 

Ensuring a fair trial here is crucial, since the eyes of Africa and the world are on this case and it must be used to set a positive example for the future.

Gaetan Mootoo

 Anything less would deny the victims their best chance seeing justice delivered after so many years of waiting. Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.