Senegal wraps up witness phase of landmark Habre trial

Dakar (AFP) - The first phase of former Chad dictator Hissene Habre's history-making trial for atrocities during the 1980s concluded in Senegal this week, with the regime's victims giving at times traumatic and horrifying evidence.

Habre, who held power between 1982 and 1990, is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture -- the first time a despot from one African country has been called to account by another.

The 73-year-old -- once backed by France and the United States as a bulwark against Libya's Moamer Kadhafi -- has been in custody in his adoptive home of Senegal since his arrest in June 2013.

An investigating commission found that well in excess of 40,000 people were killed during an eight-year reign marked by fierce repression of his opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups.

At stake is whether or not it can be proved that Habre personally knew about the abusive and often deadly punishments meted out to prisoners by Chad's feared secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).

"The trial has been fair and vivid, with moments of real courtroom drama," said Reed Brody, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch (HRW) who has worked with victims of Habre's regime for 16 years.

"There was powerful testimony about torture, rape, sexual slavery, mass executions, prisoners forced to live with rotting corpses and entire villages destroyed."

Habre is being tried by the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court established in Dakar by the African Union under an agreement with Senegal, led by a judge from Burkina Faso.

- 'E for execute' -

Delayed for years by Senegal, where Habre has lived since being ousted in 1990, the hearings set a historic precedent as, until now, African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried in international courts.

More than 4,000 "direct or indirect" victims have been registered as civil parties to the case and the court has heard from more than 90 witnesses.

The trial opened amid dramatic scenes on July 20, with Habre brought by force into the dock, refusing to speak in a court whose authority he doesn't recognise, forcing a 45-day adjournment.

The hearings resumed on September 7 with Habre appointed a defence team by the court and the prosecution spelling out some of the abuses suffered by detainees.

These included the infamous "Arbatachar", a grim method of tying all four limbs behind the victim's back to cause agonising pain and paralysis.

Torture of suspects under his regime included electric shocks, gas sprayed into prisoners' eyes, spice rubbed into their private parts and waterboarding, the tribunal heard.

One-by-one, witnesses recounted the horror of life in Chad's prisons, with the climax of a dramatic opening few weeks the evidence of Bandjim Bandoum, a remorseful top official in the DDS.

"Records of the questioning of detainees came back from the presidency with annotations: E for 'execute'; L for 'set free' or V for 'seen'," he told the tribunal.

"Once a statement was prepared by the DDS on a prisoner, only the president could request a release," he said, adding that Habre was "aware of everything that was happening" in the department's detention centres.

- 'Unfinished business' -

The trial heard from Clement Abaifouta, a prisoner for four years in N'Djamena dubbed "The Gravedigger", who described how he was forced daily to bury fellow inmates, sometimes in their dozens.

Habre's defence team has with every new testimony attempted to cast doubt on the idea of their client as an all-knowing, all-powerful head of the DDS, suggesting he may have been unaware of abuses on the ground.

But Brody, the HRW lawyer, said the trial's Internet streaming and television broadcast in Chad, as well as widespread press coverage, has allowed the public to evaluate for themselves testimony suggesting otherwise.

"The prosecution and the victims' lawyers presented evidence to show that Habre wasn’t a distant ruler who was unaware of the crimes that were being committed in his name," Brody told AFP.

Jacob Blaise, a member of an association of victims in Chad, praised the process for allowing former detainees some catharsis and providing Chadians at home with an insight into the working's of Habre's regime.

"The victims at least had the opportunity to testify in front of their alleged torturer, but the silence of Habre leaves a sense of unfinished business in this trial," added Issa Mahamat, who teaches at the University of N'Djamena.

If Habre is convicted, he can expect a sentence ranging from 30 years to life with hard labour, to be served in Senegal or another African Union country.

The trial resumes with the prosecution's and defence's final statements on February 8, with a verdict expected in late May 2016.