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After 25 Years, Former Chad Dictator Accused of Killing 40,000 Goes on Trial

Former Chad dictator Hissène Habré stands accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture committed during his brutal eight-year rule.

by Pierre Longeray and Pierre-Louis Caron
Jul 20 2015, 10:20pm

Imagen vía EPA

After a 25-year campaign to bring former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré to justice, his trial opened Monday in Senegal's capital of Dakar.

Habré stands accused of "crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture" allegedly committed during his brutal eight-year rule. A reported 40,000 people were killed and 200,000 were tortured under his regim, though Habré denies the claims.

After threatening to boycott his own trial, Chad's former president was brought to Dakar's Lat-Dior courthouse by security guards to appear before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), a special tribunal set up by the African Union in 2013 to prosecute the "person or persons" responsible for crimes committed in Chad during Habré's rule.

"[The trial] is a farce by rotten Senegalese politicians!" Habré shouted while waiting for proceedings to start. "African traitors! Valet of America!" The former Chadian leader was then escorted off the premises and returned to Cap Manuel prison, in Dakar.

"It was a rather strange opening — both solemn and ridiculous," said Henri Thuillez, the coordinator at Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the Hissène Habré case. In 2013, HRW published a 738-page study of the abuses and crimes committed under Habré's régime. Speaking to VICE News following Monday's hearing, Thuillez said that Habré's outburst was directed at gathered journalists.

More than 4,000 people have registered as civil parties to the case, and 100 witnesses are expected to give evidence during the trial, which will last an estimated three months. In a statement released on July 9, HRW said Habré had been charged with "the massive practice of murder, summary executions, [and] kidnapping followed by enforced disappearance and torture, amounting to crimes against humanity."

"The people we are helping want justice, first and foremost," Thuillez told VICE News. "They want to know why they and their loved ones were targeted, and [they want] to find out what happened. The victims are of course seeking reparations, but that is secondary."

Habré's political career in Chad began in 1971, when he returned to his native country after studying political science in Paris. According to journalist Michael Bronner, who profiled Habré for Foreign Policy in 2014, Habré soon relocated to northern Chad "to build a militia and lay the groundwork for his political future."

In 1979, Habré was appointed defense minister in an interim government formed by Chad's neighbors in an attempt to unite 11 warring Chadian factions ahead of future elections. In 1982, Habré and 2,000 of his fighters took control of Chad's capital, N'Djamena, and declared the founding of the Third Republic of Chad.

Watch VICE News' 'Chad's Fight Against Boko Haram.'

Habré ruled with an iron fist from the start, executing prisoners of war and political opponents, and enforcing a violent crackdown on civilians suspected of being opposition sympathizers.

"He had to show that [his faction] was the most powerful of all the factions that were fighting for power, and in order to do that, he had to strike very hard," said Roland Marchal, a researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and an expert on Central African conflicts. "All those who had other political ambitions for Chad were brought into the ranks — either willingly or through force."

Habré was particularly ruthless with two Chadian ethnic groups — the Hadjerai and Zaghawa. In 1987, he launched a campaign of ethnic violence against the Hadjerai after a military officer from the tribe launched an opposition movement against the government. Under Habré's direction, the regime's secret police — the Direction of Documentation and Security (DDS) — targeted civilians and dignitaries alike.

Two years later, the dictator turned his attentions toward the Zaghawa tribe for similar reasons, and again, civilians were targeted.

In 1990, forces loyal to current president Idriss Déby took N'Djamena, and Habré fled to Senegal with, allegedly, a share of the national treasury. Speaking to VICE News Monday, Marchal said that Habré's fortune may have played a role in ensuring his legal peace of mind.

"There [in Senegal], he surrounded himself with allies to avoid or delay legal proceedings," Marchal said.

In 1992, the Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré's regime of killing 40,000 people for political reasons and torturing 200,000 people. Most of the abuses were carried out by the DDS, whose heads reported directly to the president.

Related: In Photos: On the Banks of Despair With Lake Chad's Boko Haram Refugees

In 2000, seven Chadian victims of Habré filed a complaint against the former president in Senegal, and in 2006, the African Union waded into the discussion, calling on Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa." Negotiations between Senegal and the AU culminated in the inauguration of the EAC in Dakar, in 2013.

The trial that is currently underway in Dakar marks the first time that officials in one African country will try a former ruler of another country on such charges. If the 72-year-old Habré is found guilty, he could face up to 30 years in prison, to be served either in Senegal or in another country of the African Union.

Follow Pierre Longeray (@PLongeray) and Pierre-Louis Caron (@pierrelouis_con Twitter.

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