Habré victims finally get their day in court in Chad

14 November 2014 by Nathalie Magnien, N'Djamena (Chad)

From 8 AM, hundreds of victims of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré gathered before the Palais du 15 Janvier, where the trial of 21 of his alleged accomplices opened on Friday.

“We have waited for 24 years, we can wait another few hours,” said one woman in her 50s, smiling.

The Chadian capital's Palais de Justice would not hold the crowds expected to attend the start of the case, so the trial was moved to the former seat of the general assembly in the Palais du 15 Janvier.

At the start of the trial, which is expected to run until 13 December in N'Djamena, the prosecutor called the case “historic”. It is the first time that Chad will try suspects accused of crimes committed in the name of the Habré regime.

In his short opening statement, prosecutor Rapambé Mahouli Bruno stressed that the case would allow “the Chadian justice system to show its capacities … to respond to the expectations of those people on trial” for a fair hearing. 

Flanked by police, the accused sat at the front of the vast hall where the MPs would normally sit. Most dressed in traditional African robes and wearing kufis, they stared straight ahead, keeping their backs to the public. 

After the prosecution’s statement, court was adjourned and the hall cleared to have everyone searched for cameras, recording devices and mobile phones, all of which the public and the press were forbidden from bringing in. 

When the case resumed after noon, the judges proceeded to identify the defendants. Of the over 25 people named in the indictment, 21 were present. Four other defendants, it was explained, had died during the investigation. A fifth could not attend court because he is gravely ill. A sixth is currently in Sudan.

Among the suspects in court, some deny ever having been part of Habré's feared political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), which was active between 1982 and 1990. Others admitted to working for the DDS. But all categorically denied committing the crimes outlined in the indictment: murder, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and assault.

Some suspects endeavoured to explain themselves, but were cut off by the presiding judge, who told them there would be time for that in the court sessions to come.

Bizarrely, the first day of this landmark trial went ahead without lawyers for the defence or the civil parties present, something the court did not even remark upon. There is a general strike of lawyers in Chad over a pay dispute with the state. Despite its historic significance, the lawyers announced beforehand they would not break their strike for the trial.

With no defence lawyers present, the court kept the session short, adjourning the trial until Monday, 17 November, at 10 AM.

At the end of the court day, a sign came that the wounds of the Habré regime are still keenly felt in Chad. Finding themselves face to face, families of the accused and families of the victims shouted abuse at each other as the public gallery cleared out.

Lead photo: Palais du 15 janvier in N'Djaména (Flickr/kendoerr)

Palais du 15 Janvier in N'Djaména, where the trial of 21 alleged Habré accomplices opened in November (Flickr/kendoerr)