Final testimonies were heard this week in the trial against former Chadian president Hissène Habré for ‘crimes against humanity’ at the Palais De Justice in Dakar, Senegal.
The personal stories recounted by victims of Habré’s regime were at times painful to hear, even through a screen the way Mr. Aziree delivered his testimony. “I was imprisoned for 20 months with about 360 Zeghawa people, when we were finally freed, I saw only 40 of us had survived” Aziree recalled during his testimony.
The former Chadian president, who has been living in exile in Senegal for over 20 years, sat silently during the last days of the trial, moving only to adjust his white veil or sunglasses after a total of 98 witnesses took the stand.
Those like Aziree and others who testified said the court is doing its best to provide due process in what has been a long and often difficult battle to bring charges against Habré. “It is going well, it is just. I am satisfied and relieved Mr. Habre is facing justice, and I hope justice prevails,” said Aziree.
As the trial moves forward, there is also a sense of hope it will serve as an example for establishing advancements in Pan-African justice. For the first time in Africa’s history, ‘universal jurisdiction’ is being used to bring charges against a former ruler from one country for crimes committed in another. Senegal’s Extraordinary African Chambers was established as a special court with a single purpose, to prosecute the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Habré case.
Despite all the testimonies from witnesses who said they and their families were victims of Habré, the special judges appointed to the court may find it difficult to provide a guilty verdict in the case. The trial’s final witness, a commanding officer in Chad’s national gendarmerie, offered a different side of Habré in his testimony that could present a challenge to the prosecution.
“President Hissene Habre was responsible for reuniting Chad. When the war began, everyone fled but he brought all the Chadian people back home to fight!” said Guéna Rissan. Rissan, who had been appointed to the gendarmerie by Habré, told the court many of the executions carried out in Chad during Habré’s rule were not ordered by the former ruler despite the evidence of extreme acts of violence presented by human rights groups and the testimonies of earlier witnesses.
The unprecedented trial, which first began in July before being postponed until September after Habré’s lawyers were ‘no shows’ at the trial’s start, is expected to reach a verdict early in 2016. Lawyers for both sides said they expect to present their final arguments to the court in January. After waiting more than 20 years for Habré to stand trial for the charges brought against him, witnesses who said they were victimized by the brutal regime said they are hopeful Habré will be convicted and they will finally receive some justice.
For more on the Habré trial, Africa’s EAC and Universal Jurisdiction read our explainer, ‘Habré on Trial – the beginnings of Pan-African justice’