Senegal tries Chad dictator in test for African justice

Dakar (AFP) - Chadian dictator Hissene Habre went on trial Monday in Senegal, a quarter of a century after his blood-soaked reign came to an end, in a prosecution seen as a test case for African justice.

Once dubbed "Africa's Pinochet," the 72-year-old has been in custody in Dakar since his arrest in June 2013 at the home he shared in an affluent suburb of the capital with his wife and children.

Dressed in white robes and a turban, Habre pumped a fist in the air and cried "God is greatest" as he was escorted by prison guards into the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital.

He refused legal representation, having consistently insisted he did not recognise the court's jurisdiction and vowing not to cooperate with the trial.

The courthouse, packed with around 1,000 participants, spectators and local and international media, heard a number of introductory speeches before it emerged the defendant was refusing to enter the dock.

"These chambers that I call an 'extraordinary administrative committee' are illegitimate and illegal. Those who preside here are not judges but simple functionaries," Habre said in a statement read out by the chief judge.

The court adjourned, ruling that Habre would be conducted by force to the dock on Tuesday.

Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch who has worked on the case since 1999, said Habre's stance reflected "a cowardice and a lack of respect which can only be contrasted with the courage of the survivors."

"The court president's decision to bring Habre by force tomorrow is a relief to the victims who want to look him in the eyes and ask why they were jailed and tortured, why their loved ones were killed," he added.

Victims of the regime lined up to express confidence that Habre's refusal to cooperate would not derail the process.

"With him or without him, the trial will go ahead," Souleymane Guengueng, founder of the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissene Habre, told AFP.

Habre -- backed during his presidency by France and the United States as a bulwark against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi -- is on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad from 1982 until he was ousted in 1990.

- 'Trial for Africa's future' -

Chief prosecutor Mbacke Fall paid tribute to the survivors of the Habre era "who had the virtue to pursue the fight against impunity."

Rights groups say 40,000 Chadians were killed under a regime of brutal repression of opponents and rival ethnic groups Habre perceived as a threat to his grip on the Sahel nation.

"This trial is staged for our people, for our future, for the future of Africa. And it is being staged to reconcile us with ourselves," said Chadian Justice Minister Mahamat Issa Halikim.

Delayed for years by Senegal, where Habre has lived since fleeing Chad, the trial sets an historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried in international courts.

Brody described the trial as a "test case for African justice" that had come as a result of 25 years of campaigning by the victims.

The African Union had mandated Senegal to try Habre in July 2006, but the country stalled the process for years under former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was defeated in 2012 elections.

- Justice in Africa -

The Extraordinary African Chambers -- set up in an agreement between Dakar and the AU -- finally indicted Habre in July 2013 and placed him in pre-trial custody while investigators spent 19 months interviewing some 2,500 witnesses.

Around 100 witnesses will testify during hearings expected to last around three months, although 4,000 people have been registered as victims in the case.

"When we began this case, when we started working with the victims -- I started in 1999 -- one of the victims said to Human Rights Watch 'since when has justice come all the way to Chad?'," Brody told AFP.

"The African Union saw the importance of being able to show that you can have justice in Africa."

The UN described the opening of the trial as a "milestone for justice in Africa" while France issued a statement welcoming the opening of a process it said it had helped establish.

France sent 3,000 paratroopers with air support to support Habre when Libyan-backed supporters of his political rival Goukouni Weddeye launched an offensive in northern Chad in 1983.

Rights groups say the US, too, provided a variety of support to Habre -- including training, intelligence and arms for his feared secret police -- despite being aware of the regime's atrocities.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby hailed "an important step toward justice" for those who suffered under Habre's rule.