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Former President Of Chad Forced To Appear In Court For War Crimes Trial

Jul 21, 2015
Originally published on July 21, 2015 6:23 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Senegal today, the war crimes trial of a former ruler of Chad was postponed to September. The government of Hissene Habre is accused of killing 40,000 people. The delay is to give his new court-appointed lawyers time to prepare their case. Habre has lived in exile in Senegal for 25 years. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that he had to be forced to appear in court.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The trial of Hissene Habre, who ruled the Sahara Desert nation of Chad for eight years until his ouster in 1990, is billed as a test case for continental justice in Africa. It's the first time in modern history that one African country - Chad - has allowed another - Senegal - to prosecute a former leader. Habre is accused of ordering the killing, torture and disappearance of tens of thousands of Chadians in the 1980s. If found guilty, he could face the rest of his life in prison. Seventy-two-year-old Habre has long denied the charges and says his trial in Dakar is a sham.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Chad's former president protested loudly as he was forcibly led out of the court yesterday after the opening of his trial. Habre says the tribunal is an imperialist, neocolonial plot. He was widely reported to have the support of the U.S. and France during his regime as a buffer against Libya's then-leader Muammar Gaddafi. Reed Brody, legal counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch, has been battling for years with survivors of Habre's alleged prison torture cells to bring him to justice.

REED BRODY: Whether or not Hissene Habre speaks, whether or not he participates in his defense, he's going to have to listen to the victims' stories, as the victims describe how they were tortured, how their loved ones were killed.

QUIST-ARCTON: Today, Habre sat alone in stony silence, surrounded by security agents and facing the panel of judges. Dressed in white robes and a matching turban and clutching Muslim prayer beads, Habre refused to respond to the judge. Brody says the former Chadian leader's refusal to allow his chosen legal team to defend him in court is a clever delaying strategy and that he's exploiting the limited resources of the African Union-backed court.

BRODY: Habre's strategy of undermining the court, of making everything difficult - but, you know, look, Hissene Habre's government threw thousands of people in jail without giving them a lawyer and without giving them a trial.

QUIST-ARCTON: One of the lawyers in Habre's outgoing defense team, Ibrahima Diawara, has denounced the trial as a judicial joke.

IBRAHIMA DIAWARA: (Speaking French).

QUIST-ARCTON: Diawara says the outcome is a foregone conclusion and that Hissene Habre has already been as good as tried. But a lawyer representing Chadian alleged torture survivors describes Habre as a wounded lion, thrashing about, trying to find a way out. But...

SULEYMANE GUENGUENG: (French spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Suleymane Guengueng, who spent two years in Habre's jails and set up Chad's victim support association says he's confident justice will be served and getting Habre to court after so many years is a victory. After yesterday's scuffles, Hissene Habre left the courtroom today without uttering a word.

(APPLAUSE)

QUIST-ARCTON: As he was escorted out by security agents and applauded by his supporters in the courtroom, Hissene Habre punched his fist in the air, making the six-week adjournment of his trial seem like a triumph. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.