The Gravedigger and the President: Chadian torture victims face former president

Clement Abaifouta, 55, has been waiting nearly 25 years to put one question to Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad: “Why did you arrest me?”

Video: The Gravedigger and the President

Film by Aida Grovestins and Ricci Shryock 

Abaifouta was arrested on 12 July, 1985, when he was 23 years old. He had won a scholarship to study in Germany and reckons his travel plans raised suspicions in Habré's government that he was an opposition supporter. 

Instead of going to university, he first spent two weeks at the headquarters of the political police, known as the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), before being moved to a prison, with no access to his family or lawyers.

He was held there for four years. 

According to groups such as Human Rights Watch, thousands of people in Chad were wrongfully imprisoned, tortured and even killed during Habré's rule, which lasted from 1982 to 1990.

Justice at last?

Now, after years of delayed proceedings, victims finally have their chance at justice.

Habré went to court on Monday in Dakar, Senegal, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes before the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special unit within the Senegalese court system inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990.

The trial is expected to last three months. It's the first time one state is prosecuting the former leader of another.

“This shows that victims can mobilise to create the political conditions to bring a dictator or a torturer to justice no matter where he is,” said Reed Brody, a counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with victims since 1999. 

“This is the first time in history, in anywhere in the world that victims have been able to go after a tyrant in another country and to bring him to court. This has the capacity to inspire many victims and survivors from other countries.”

Habré has denied the allegations and called the trial “a farce.” His lawyers say he refuses to participate in court proceedings. 

“First of all you should recognise that Chad, from 1982 to 1990, was in a conflict – internal conflict and an international conflict with Libya,” Habré's attorney Francois Serres told IRIN. “The control of Mr. Habré over the territory was very limited… It doesn't mean that we do not recognise that there were potential victims in Chad at this moment. We do not recognise the way the accusation has been organised in order to put this trial today to the face of the world.”

But according to Human Rights Watch, which has uncovered thousands of documents from the former president’s time in office, Habré knew about the torture and political killings of thousands of Chadians. 

“The documents of Hissène Habré's political police at the time show that he was constantly informed of what was going on,” Brody said. “They show direct relationship between Habré and the political police.”

A long-awaited moment

Abaifouta, who still lives in Chad’s capital N'Djamena with his wife, four children, and a dog named CPI (the French acronym for “International Criminal Court”), has traveled to Dakar for the trial. He and more than 100 other alleged victims will each get the chance to testify against Habré in the coming weeks.

For Abaifouta, it's a chance to face the man he says put him in prison for four years and forced him to bury the bodies of his fellow prisoners each day – sometimes dozens at a time.

“The day they [the DDS] interrogated me, I demanded to meet Hissène Habré,” Abaifouta said. “They told me it wasn't possible. [Being imprisoned without cause] was already an injustice, and during my entire detention, I [told myself]: ‘The day I leave, I will reclaim my rights. I will reclaim justice.’”

That will take a little bit longer still: on Tuesday, Habré’s lawyers failed to show up for his trial, prompting the court to appoint new ones and to postpone proceedings until September.

"We are not discouraged," Abaifouta told IRIN, after he heard the trial was delayed another 45 days. "We have already waited 25 years. It doesn't hurt us."

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