Hissène Habré Trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers: December Hearings

This guest post, part of an IJ Monitor series of summaries on the Hissène Habré trial, was produced by a group of Senegalese law school graduates, with the assistance of  TrustAfrica. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the views of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The trial of former Chadian president Hissène Habré before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Dakar, Senegal continued in December. The trial opened on July 20, 2015, but was suspended until September 7 to allow court-appointed defense lawyers time to familiarize themselves with the case after Habré instructed his original lawyers not to appear in court.

Habré is being prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture allegedly committed in Chad from June 7, 1982 to December 1, 1990.

During the month of December, the last depositions of witnesses and victims were heard, closing the first phase of the trial before the court, which ran from September 7 to December 15. In total, 55 hearings were held, during which judges heard the testimony of 92 witnesses and victims.

Testimony in December focused on war crimes allegedly perpetrated against prisoners of war captured during the Faya-Largeau battle. The court heard a  firsthand account from the only living survivor of the massacre of prisoners of war in Ambing in 1983.

For information on earlier trial events, see our summaries from September, October, and November.

Testimony of the Sole Survivor of the Ambing Massacre

On December 8, 2015, the judges heard testimony from Mr. Djibrine Ahmat Bishara . The farmer was a veteran of the Revolutionary Democratic Council (RDC) before joining the national government of transition (GUNT), becoming a police officer alongside other former combatants. According to the witness, after being ousted by the GUNT in 1980, President Habré organized a military coup in 1982 in an effort to regain political power. Defeated by Habré’s forces in 1982, loyalists of Goukouni Wedeye organized a counter-coup in 1983 in the city of Faya, where they suffered another defeat and were captured. The witness said that it was during the battle of Faya that he was captured along with close to 100 other combatants. These prisoners of war were all brought to the Faya Airport and then taken to the city’s prison.

These prisoners were then transferred to the capital N’Djamena. Addressing the court on the conditions of this transfer, the witness said, “They made us suffer a lot, they do not consider us as Chadian brothers. When we arrived in N’Djamena, we were paraded in the streets and people called us Libyan mercenaries.” He then spoke about his imprisonment and revealed: “Many of us were in tight prison cells; we had not eaten or drunk and were treated like abandoned dogs.”

A few days after their arrival from Faya prison, a group of soldiers selected 150 prisoners, including the witness, and loaded them onto a truck. Upon disembarking from the vehicle, the soldiers began to shoot them. They were chained in pairs using light chains and padlocks. “I was shot in the finger, forearm, and thigh. One of them [the bullets] had reached my finger but the others had just grazed me. This explains the minor wounds on my thighs,” explained Bishara.

Questioned by a judge about his injuries, Bishara declared that he had not lost much blood, remained conscious throughout the massacre, and that other bodies lay on him. After the soldiers departure, he had risen to try to open the padlock chaining him to the other prisoners; it was then that he had realized that he was the sole survivor. After successfully liberating himself from his chains, Bishara walked into the night until he reached a village. At the village he found GUNT officials, Acek Ibn Oumar and Goukouni Wedeye, who led him to Sirte hospital where he remained six to seven months before rejoining the camp.

“I returned to the militia camp because I had a lot of motivation and resentment, and because being a soldier is a question of life or death. I intended to stay in the bush and continue fighting, but things turned out differently,” he added. After his testimony, the witness further stated that he had approached Mr. Abakar, President of the Commission of Inquiry into the crimes of Habré established by his successor Idriss Deby, in order to testify to his experiences. As a result, Bishara was able to lead investigators to the site of the massacre.

The testimonies presented during this first phase of the trial ended on December 15, 2015, when the defense called their last witness. A status conference was held on December 16, 2015 during which the prosecution and civil parties were granted until January 18, 2016 to submit their written conclusions. Judges granted the defense until February 1 to submit their findings. Closing arguments will be heard on February 8, when the trial resumes.

The verdict is expected in May 2016, and the prosecutor and the defense will have 15 days to file an appeal. If no appeal is filed, the criminal phase of the trial would end, and the civil or reparations phase would begin in July 2016. However, in the case of an appeal, the criminal case would continue before the Extraordinary African Chambers Court of Appeals.

For more information about the upcoming final submissions scheduled to begin Monday, February 8, see the Trust Africa press release here.

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