Chad’s ex-dictator Hissene Habre stands accused of crimes against humanity, including allegations of sexual slavery, and the testimony over the past few months has been harrowing.
The case is also setting a precedent because it marks the first time the former ruler of one African country, Chad, has been put on trial in another nation, Senegal, in a specially convened court, backed by the African Union.
Dozens of witnesses have testified in the capital, Dakar, at the court, known as the Extraordinary African Chambers. Women say they were raped in custody during Habre’s regime from 1982 to 1990.
One woman, Kadidja Hassan Zidane, testified in October that Habre, now 73, raped her four times in the presidential palace in the 1980s.
Pressed for more details by the presiding judge, Zidane told the court, “President Habre would be waiting for me in a room. Two times I resisted. Once I simply didn’t have the strength. The fourth time, I resisted and he jabbed me in my private parts with a ballpoint pen.”
Responding to the women’s testimony, Habre’s official website denounced the witnesses as “crazy whores,” “nymphomaniac prostitutes” and spies working for former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Zidane was among a group of women banished to a remote military camp in the arid north, where they said they were often raped by soldiers at night, after slaving all day as cooks and cleaners for Habre’s troops.
Chadian human rights lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina is representing many of the survivors of Habre’s feared political police and says they should be lauded for their bravery.
“One of the hardest, most painful things for a woman is to say, ‘I was raped.’ These women have shared details they have not spoken of for more than 25 years. That is courage,” said Moudeina.
“It’s a pity that Hissene Habre — whose lawyers and allies portray him as a great man — has chosen to hide behind silence, cowardice and dishonor,” said Moudeina. “He ruled Chad with an iron first for eight years, but he treats his victims with scorn.”
Human rights and survivors groups say Habre’s crimes include ordering tens of thousands of political killings. The prosecution says Habre is criminally liable for giving the orders.
Habre fled Chad after his ouster in 1990 and has been living in exile in Senegal for the past quarter century. It was only after Macky Sall was elected Senegal’s president in 2012 that the country agreed to an African Union request to put Habre on trial.
The proceedings have provided a virtual history lesson.
Habre was backed by Chad’s former colonial power, France, as well as the United States. He was seen as a bulwark against neighboring Libya’s then-ruler, Gadhafi.
“We need to step back and look at the larger picture. How is it that the United States — the Reagan administration — and the CIA — supported a brutal dictator like Hissene Habre? We supported Hissene Habre to the end — he was supported almost to the end by France,” said Reed Brody, an American lawyer serving as legal counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
For the past 16 years, Brody has worked closely with survivors of Habre’s alleged torture.
“This is the first time anywhere in the world that the courts of one country, Senegal, are prosecuting the former leader of another — Chad” on human rights charges, Brody noted.
“This has been a trial of real courtroom drama. For 55 days, 93 witnesses, testifying about rape, sexual slavery, torture, mass executions, rotting corpses in jail next to prisoners — and that he gave the order to commit these crimes. He’s had to listen to them,” Brody added.
Yet the court has barely heard Habre’s voice.
He unleashed an initial outburst in July at the start of a trial, which he has denounced as an imperialist sham. He has described anyone taking part as “African traitors.” But for months since, Habre, impeccably dressed in a snow-white turban and traditional flowing gown known as a boubou, has sat virtually motionless.
He listens to his accusers, saying nothing. Looking straight ahead, with his legs crossed. Habre gives little away except for the occasional tap of the foot, or tweak of the turban, as witnesses recall alleged atrocities.
Habre has long denied any knowledge of torture or killings in Chad under his watch. He rejects the tribunal’s jurisdiction and has refused to cooperate with his court-appointed defense team.
Burly, black-clad Senegalese security agents had to drag Habre into court when he resisted in September, shouting abuse at the judges, after a two-month adjournment to allow his new defense team to study the case.
Brody, the Human Rights Watch lawyer, said that with or without Habre’s cooperation, bringing a former African leader to trial in this way is unprecedented.
“It’s not the [U.N.] Security Council, it’s not the prosecutor in The Hague,” he said. “It’s actually the survivors themselves who, for the last 25 years, never gave up and said we are going to fight to bring a dictator to justice, even in Africa, and they succeeded.”
Moudeina, the Chadian lawyer, says this should be considered a triumph for the continent.
“This is a turning point for Africa. This is Africa judging Africa. And we can be proud of that. Africans bringing to trial a former African leader for atrocities perpetrated on African soil. This is a first step and the continent has shown that Africa can judge its own leaders who err — right here in Africa.”
A verdict is expected in May.