(Reuters) – Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre had to be carried into court and restrained by masked security guards on Monday as charges were read at the re-start of his trial in Senegal for crimes against humanity during his 1982-1990 rule.
The trial was suspended in July after his lawyers refused to appear before the special African Union-backed court. The case marks the first time that the former head of one African nation will be tried by a court in another.
A successful trial, conducted to high standards and leading to a credible verdict, would strengthen African countries’ argument that they can try their own leaders, amid criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for indicting only Africans.
Habre, accused of responsibility for thousands of killings and cases of torture during his eight-year rule, has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court.
“Shut up! Shut up!” Habre shouted at the clerk as the indictment was read, according to images transmitted on state broadcaster RTS. Habre had to be restrained in his seat by three balaclava-wearing police officers, as he shouted abuse at the court.
“Hissene Habre can make all the noise all he wants, but he doesn’t get to decide whether he should be tried, or if the victims get justice,” said Reed Brody, a counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with Habre’s victims since 1999.
The trial caps a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a coup in his central African nation.
The 72-year-old, who faces charges of war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity, could face a maximum of life in prison. Dozens of victims will fly to Dakar to testify at the trial, thanks to the cooperation of the Chadian government.
“Hissene Habre was the absolute king in Chad, throwing people in jail, having them tortured as he pleased, and now he’s acting like a spoiled child,” said Fatimé Sakine, 53, a secretary who was tortured during 15 months in prison from 1984 to 1986. “He’s just afraid of us and afraid of the truth.”
When the victims first brought their case in Senegal in 2000, courts ruled they did not have the authority to try crimes committed in Chad.
The African Union later refused to extradite Habre to face trial in Belgium and asked Senegal to pass legislation giving its courts jurisdiction for foreign crimes.
It was not until President Macky Sall took office in Senegal in 2012 that the process picked up speed, with the creation of the Extraordinary African Tribunal (CAE) a year later.