Chad's Hissene Habre: Battle to bring 'Africa's Pinochet' to court

media captionWho is Hissene Habre and what exactly is he accused of?

Former Chadian President Hissene Habre is going on trial in Senegal for alleged human rights crimes, including 40,000 murders. The BBC's Laeila Adjovi reports on the 25-year campaign to bring him to justice and what the trial means for Africa.

"Why was I arrested? What was I accused of? Why is it that for four years I did not exist? That is the question I want to ask Hissene Habre."

Clement Abaifouta has been seeking answers for more than two decades.

Jailed right after he finished high school, he was routinely abused and even forced to bury some of his fellow inmates.

But that failed to break him. Mr Abaifouta promised himself that if he got out, he would fight the impunity of the regime of Hissene Habre, president of Chad from 1982 to 1990.

He grins a bitter smile as he points out that ordeals like his were commonplace under Mr Habre: Arrests took place at the whim of the feared secret police - the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS).

"The DDS was an extermination machine, meant to crush the Chadian people," Mr Abaifouta explains.

"You know, during Hissene Habre's rule, if you had a beautiful woman, a nice car, a good bank account - anything that shined brought you some trouble."

image captionClement Abaifouta was forced to bury his fellow prison inmates

The regime stands accused of carrying out 40,000 murders, and torturing many more, which earned Mr Habre the nickname of the "African Pinochet".

The survivors have arrived in Dakar to testify. Victims associations never stopped investigating and gathering evidence to bring the former Chadian leader to justice.

"Young people who were born after the regime of Hissene Habre want to know what happened, and we have to help them," adds Mr Abaifouta.

"We need to give the evidence to historians to rewrite the history of Chad."

Bringing Habre to justice

1974: Hissene Habre came to the world's attention when a group of his rebels captured three European hostages

1982: Seizes power in Chad

1990: Ousted by current President Idriss Deby and flees to Senegal

2005: Belgian judge issues warrant for his arrest for human rights offences; Senegal puts him under house arrest

2006: African Union says Senegal should try Habre "on behalf of Africa"

2008: Senegal's constitution amended to allow the prosecution of war crimes

2011: Senegal says it will repatriate Habre to Chad, where he had been sentenced to death, but blocked by the UN

2012: International Court of Justice at The Hague orders Senegal to either put him on trial "without delay" or extradite him to Belgium

2013: AU and Senegal establish special court to try Habre

Reed Brody, from Human Rights Watch, has worked on this case from the beginning.

It has taken more than two decades of legal wrangles to come to this trial, yet the case does not lack evidence.

"Fifteen years ago we stumbled on the files of Hissene Habre's secret police in an abandoned building in Ndjamena," he recalls.

"In these documents alone, there are the names of 1,208 people who died in detention, of almost 13,000 people who were victims of torture, extra-judicial execution, and arbitrary arrest. The documents provide a roadmap of how the repression of the Chadian people was carried out."

image captionYoussou Ndoy says Mr Habre has helped a lot of people and the trial should not be happening

Even with the testimonies of thousands of victims, the former president still has support in Ouakam, the quiet suburb of Dakar where he lived peacefully in exile for 23 years.

To his friends, Mr Habre is known as a good man and a good Muslim.

According to Youssou Ndoye, a traditional leader in Dakar, the trial should not be happening.

"Mr Hissene Habre has helped a lot of poor people here. He did a lot of good, and everyday he thought about his country. He is a patriot."

In retirement, the former head of state has tried to keep a low profile.

image captionMr Habre has been living the Ouakam suburb Senegal's capital, Dakar, for 23 years

Although he was indicted in Senegal in 2013, Mr Habre has always denied any knowledge of murder or torture, and refused to cooperate with the court.

But justice is catching up.

This is a landmark trial.

The African Union has become increasingly hostile to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, believing that it has unfairly targeted Africans.

Mr Habre could not, in any case, be tried before the ICC, as his alleged crimes were committed before it was established in 2002.

The creation of an African court with universal jurisdiction is seen as a crucial precedent for African justice.

image captionSenegal will be the first country in the world to prosecute the former ruler of another country for alleged human rights abuses

The case has been making headlines in the local press.

"We must have the capacity to try our own leaders right here in Africa. I am against the fact that [former Ivory Coast President] Laurent Gbagbo is tried at The Hague," says Nafissa, a law student at Dakar university. "This trial is important to us, and I am going to follow it with great attention."

It is the first time an African head of state will be tried in another African country, for torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This will also be the first time anywhere in the world that the courts of one country will prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights abuses.

The trial will take place at the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special ad hoc court set up by Senegal and the African Union, and inaugurated in 2013.

Victims of the Habre regime say the trial could be a turning point for justice in Africa.

They hope it can also be a warning to would-be African dictators that impunity does not last forever.

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