By Franck Petit
Last week, vigorous and contradictory arguments were presented during the final public proceedings in the trial of the former Chadian president, Hissein Habré. Habré is on trial before a special tribunal in Dakar, accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture when he was in power from June 1982 to December 1990.
Chadians, the rest of the African continent and international justice observers are now looking to the three African judges who have begun their deliberations. Their ruling will give meaning to this unique trial of a former president, carried out “in Africa’s name” by Senegal. The symbolism of the trial will undoubtedly weigh heavily on the judges’ shoulders, as will the files gathered against Habré over the past quarter of a century in Chad: the report by the national investigation commission published in 1992, the Belgium investigation that led in 2005 to an international arrest warrant and the results of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) 19-month investigation itself.
Victory for the victims
In this trial, in which the accused chose to remain silent, the voices of the victims dominated the proceedings. And regardless of the outcome, the footage broadcast in Chad will undoubtedly have left a deep impression on people. “Things were said that we had never heard about”, Zenaba Ndolassem, a member of a women’s association told us last month in the town of Abéché. “For the past 25 years, no one had listened to the victims. We didn’t think the Court would succeed in doing that. We thought they would give up. But it’s the history of a nation and a people between 1982 and 1990 that unfolded itself in front of the Extraordinary African Chambers.” Indeed some taboo subjects came to light, including rape.
This “victims’ victory”, which is often invoked like a mantra by NGOs during international trials, was probably never felt so concretely as by the people of Chad. More than 4500 Chadian victims registered as civil parties in the Habré trial. 80 victims and witnesses were actually able to appear in court. The victims were represented in Dakar by three Chadian associations, which themselves were represented by some 15 lawyers from Chad, Senegal, as well as Switzerland, France and Belgium. Their impressive presence during the trial was partly supported by a Human Rights Watch team, led by Reed Brody. During the closing arguments, the prosecutor thanked him, while the defence accused him of “manipulating” the trial.
“Habré gave the orders”
In their closing arguments, the civil parties underscored the fairness of the trial, despite comments in the courtroom, giving the accused the opportunity to speak and participate. Unfortunately, says Senegalese lawyer Yare Fall, he was given that right, but he refused to exercise it. Instead, says Fall, “he hid behind his turban, sunglasses and showed a lack of respect for the Court”. His fellow defence lawyer, Laminal Ndintamadji from Chad, asks: “how can people continue to speak of fake victims after hearing the testimony of orphans, widows and the people who escaped?” Speaking about the defence conclusions, in which they seemed to justify torture because of the security situation in the country and threats from Libya, Philippe Houssiné responds: “this contradicts the very definition of the crime of torture, which even exceptional circumstances cannot justify”.
He went on to challenge another argument which Habré lawyers frequently used during the trial. They argued that the current president of Chad, Idriss Déby – who was the commander-in-chief of the army in Habré’s government – as well as France and the United States, which provided him military and financial backing, share responsibility for the crimes committed during Habré’s rule. Recalling that the Chambers was trying him for personal criminal liability, Houssiné says: “when you say, I was not alone, that is an admission of guilt in a court of law”. For Jacqueline Moudeïna, a lawyer who has been fighting on behalf of the victims since the very beginning, there are no doubts. By creating the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS) when he came power, Habré built a “killing machine” and acted like God. The Chadian lawyer backed up her arguments with two graphs, which were exhibited on panels to the court. They showed the head of state at the heart of the security system.
Prosecutor calls for life imprisonment
Hierarchical responsibility is at the heart of the trial. According to Attorney General Mbacké Fall, the experts and witnesses who testified at the Chambers described in their accounts “a logic of repression”, put in place and under the personal control of the president, the state’s highest authority. To underpin the prosecutor’s closing arguments, Anta Diop Ndiaye recalled the main waves of repression and the fact that the accused had established commissions to neutralise opposition by the Codos, Hadjaraï and Zaghawa groups. For another prosecutor, Mustapha Ka, it is Habré who gave himself these extraordinary powers via a special act which replaced the country’s constitution in 1982, “powers which have now turned against him”, according to Ka. To him, a president so keen on control and imperious in exercising his authority could not have been unaware of the massacres which were described during the trial by the witnesses and DDS files.
“We’ve proved our case”, concluded prosecutor Mbacké Fall. “Hissein Habré committed war crimes. He created the DDS to safeguard his power. He tortured citizens. All the evidence needed to prove his guilt has been presented: written evidence and official documents were presented, mass graves were uncovered, detention centres were visited, without mentioning the testimony of hundreds of victims, experts and NGO reports.” It came as no surprise that the prosecutor called for Habré to be sentenced to life imprisonment and for all his property to be confiscated.
Defence asks for acquittal
The lawyers appointed to defend the accused, who refused to speak to them and to take part in his own trial, were the last to speak. According to them, Habré is not responsible for the numerous crimes detailed by nearly dozens of witnesses since the start of the trial on 20 July 2015. Mounir Ballal describes the former president as a patriot by heart, a deeply nationalistic man, who “wanted to make Chad a modern state”. Another defence lawyer, Abdoul Gning, arguedthat his hierarchical responsibility had not been established. “Habré did sign the decree creating the DDS, but what the prosecution did not mention is that under article 2 of that same decree, the DDS is placed under the control of the Interior Ministry.” Gning also mentioned the testimony of a former DDS officer, Bandjim Bandoum, who told the court that “Hissein Habré did not want an escalation in the south of the country at the time. He wanted to pacify the country.”
Mbaye Sène argued that the planning of the repression of the rebellions, needed to save the country, was not proven. For the defence, the decree creating the DDS could not be used to assess the alleged criminal plan. The same holds true for the president’s appointment of the DDS’s directors and deputy directors. “In countries across the world, presidents adopt decrees and name heads of departments”, he argued. As he completed his closing arguments, the lawyer asserted that “Habré is not guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture”. Addressing the court president, he said “we have faith that you will acquit our client. That would only be justice.”
The Habré trial wound up on 11 February in Dakar. It’s now up to the three judges, headed by Gberdao Gustave Kam from Burkina Faso, to deliberate and reach a verdict. It’s scheduled to be announced on Monday, 30 May 2016.
Lead image: Gberdao Gustave Kam, President of the Extraordinary African Chambers (Photo: Syellou)
Franck Petit is the EAC Outreach Consortium’s communication expert.