Senegal Tries Ex-Chad Dictator in Test for African Justice
More than a quarter-century after his blood-soaked reign came to an end, former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre went on trial in a Senegalese court on Monday in what is seen as a test case for African justice.
Once dubbed "Africa's Pinochet", the 72-year-old has been in custody in Senegal since his arrest in June 2013 at the home he shared in an affluent Dakar suburb with his wife and children.
Dressed in white robes and a turban, Habre pumped a fist in the air and cried "God is greatest" as he was escorted by prison guards into the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital.
Habre had said he did not recognize the court's jurisdiction and vowed he and his lawyers would play no part in the trial.
But guards forced him into the dock before a courtroom packed with a thousand participants and spectators.
Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso opened proceedings and announced that the erstwhile military strongman had no legal representation.
Supporters screamed out slogans hailing Habre as a "liberator" of Chad before they were removed by police.
Habre -- backed during his presidency by France and the United States as a bulwark against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi -- is on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad from 1982 to 1990.
He was overthrown by rebel troops in December 1990 and fled to Senegal.
Chief prosecutor Mbacke Fall paid tribute to the survivors of the Habre era "who had the virtue to pursue the fight against impunity".
Rights groups say 40,000 Chadians were killed under a regime propped up by crackdowns on opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups Habre perceived as a threat to his grip on the Sahel nation.
Delayed for years by Senegal, the trial sets a historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried in international courts.
Senegal and the African Union signed an agreement in December 2012 to set up a court to bring Habre to justice.
The AU had mandated Senegal to try Habre in July 2006, but the country stalled the process for years under former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was defeated in 2012 elections.
Macky Sall, Wade's successor who took office in April 2012 vowed to organize a trial in Senegal.
"This is the first case anywhere in the world -- not just in Africa -- where the courts of one country, Senegal, are prosecuting the former leader of another, Chad, for alleged human rights crimes," Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told AFP.
Brody described the trial as a "test case for African justice", adding it was the first time that the concept of "universal jurisdiction" -- that a suspect can be prosecuted for their past crimes wherever in the world they find themselves -- had been implemented in Africa.
"So there are a lot of historical aspects to this. But, for me, the most important kind of thing is that it is the survivors who have pushed for 25 years," he added.
The Extraordinary African Chambers were set up by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the "person or persons" most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad during Habre's rule.
The chambers indicted Habre in July 2013 and placed him in pre-trial custody while four investigating judges spent 19 months interviewing some 2,500 witnesses and victims and analyzing thousands of documents.
Around 100 witnesses will testify during hearings expected to last around three months, although 4,000 people have been registered as victims in the case.
"When we began this case, when we started working with the victims -- I started in 1999 -- one of the victims said to Human Rights Watch 'since when has justice come all the way to Chad?'," Brody told AFP.
"The African Union saw the importance of being able to show that you can have justice in Africa," he added.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein described the opening of the trial as a "milestone for justice in Africa" while France's foreign ministry issued a statement welcoming the opening of a process it said it had helped establish.
France sent 3,000 paratroopers with air support to support Habre when Libyan-backed supporters of his political rival Goukouni Weddeye launched an offensive in northern Chad in 1983.
Rights groups say the US, too, provided a variety of support to Habre -- including training, intelligence and arms for his feared secret police -- despite being aware of the regime's atrocities.