(Reuters) – A lawyer for victims of Chad’s former president Hissene Habre welcomed his trial in Senegal on Monday as “the end of a nightmare” after he was forced to appear before an African Union-backed court for crimes committed in his 1982-1990 rule.
The start of Habre’s trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture ends a 15-year battle by hundreds of victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a coup.
Habre, armed by Washington as its proxy in a war against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, is blamed by rights groups for widespread torture and the killing of up to 40,000 political opponents and ethnic rivals.
Dressed all in white, the 72-year-old had to be forced to appear in the crowded courtroom after he refused to recognise the authority of the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) set up especially to try him two years ago.
“Down with imperialism! Down with colonialism!” Habre shouted before the start of the proceedings, a cry taken up by his supporters in the court. He was escorted from the courtroom by security men and refused to return.
“There are traitors here. Traitors against Africa and the lackeys of imperialism,” he shouted. Habre’s lawyers did not attend the trial, alleging a lack of due process.
The tribunal is supported by the African Union but is part of Senegal’s justice system, making it the first time in modern history that one country’s domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another country on rights charges.
A successful trial, conducted to high standards and leading to a credible verdict, would strengthen African countries’ argument that they should try their own, amid criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for indicting only Africans.
“We want to show the Chadian people, and why not all Africans, that no, you cannot govern in terror and criminality,” said Souleymane Guengueng, 66, a former accountant who spent more than two years in Habre’s prisons.
Guengueng, who spent years secretly compiling evidence of Habre’s crimes after his fall, is among some 100 victims due to testify at the trial and wants to look Habre in the eye.
Habre’s trial is expected to last three months, at the end of which he could face a maximum of life in prison. The prosecution is built on campaigning by thousands of victims and Chadian lawyer Jaqueline Moudeina, who defied repeated threats.
“This is the end of a nightmare,” Moudeina told Reuters in the courtroom, seated on a bench some 20 metres (66 ft) behind Habre. “The fact that he is here and listens to victims speak of all the atrocities they suffered is already a great victory.”
“RARELY DO WE HAVE SO MUCH EVIDENCE”
Many African leaders say the continent needs to find its own solution to international justice, because of what they see as the bias and inadequacy of the ICC. Since its founding in 2002, the Hague-based international court has so far investigated nine “situations”, all in African countries, yielding just two convictions, both of little-known Congolese warlords.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes in 2012 by a separate special tribunal in The Hague, and dozens of people behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide have been tried by a special court in Tanzania. But those were both ad hoc proceedings set up for specific events by the United Nations.
The case against Habre, who was feted at the White House in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan after expelling Libyan forces from Chad, turns on whether he personally ordered the large-scale assassination and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of up to 40,000 political murders and systematic torture, mostly by his feared intelligence police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Human Rights Watch says its investigation in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandoned DDS headquarters updating Habre on the status of detainees. A court handwriting expert concluded that margin notes on one document were Habre’s.
“Rarely do we find so much evidence of crimes,” said Reed Brody of HRW, the New York-based watchdog. “And these match the testimonies of the victims day for day, word for word.”
Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador at large heading the State Department’s office of Global Criminal Justice, said the case against Habre appeared in some ways stronger than that against Taylor, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison.