By Clément Abaifouta
As President of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRHH), I have worked beside hundreds of survivors of brutal acts committed by Chad’s ex-President Hissène Habré, to bring him and his accomplices to justice. Our first victory occurred in N’Djamena in 2015, when ex-policemen from the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), or secret police, including police chief Mahamat Djibrine, were found guilty of torture by the local court.
The verdict meant that Djibrine and his officers would face either life in prison or years of hard labor because of the beatings, rapes, abuse and criminal acts they had committed against the people of Chad. The court also ruled that these crimes would be acknowledged in the form of reparations to the survivors and the surviving families of those who were killed. Since then, however, there has been no further progress on these reparations.
A year later, we were overjoyed again to hear that Habré himself was found guilty of crimes against humanity, summary execution, torture and rape and sentenced to life in prison by the Extraordinary African Court in Senegal. As the mastermind behind the murder of more than 40,000 people during the years of his rule, Habré had been living in exile in Senegal since 1990.
I will never forget that day in court as I looked at his victims who spoke at the trial, testifying on the public record. Now, nearly 30 years later, we were finally able to demand that Habré witness our stories and take responsibility for his actions. It was not easy for those victims to be there, many were harassed and intimidated upon their return home after the trial. Others suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from their testimony, reliving the horrors they had previously experienced.
In July 1985, I was on my way to Germany to study on scholarship when I was arrested by the DDS. I was suspected of working for the armed opposition and thrown in jail for the next four years. I joined hundreds of other prisoners in a tiny, cramped cement cell, unable to breathe, eat, sleep or move, waiting for death to come. I was forced to dig the graves of those who died, some of whom were my friends.
Several of the men in jail had been tortured by tying their hands and feet behind their backs until they lost circulation and became paralysed. Others had two wooden boards tied to their temples and slowly tightened like a tourniquet until their ears rang and they lost consciousness. Many of the women in the cell next to us experienced sexual violence, some giving birth to babies who couldn’t survive the hardship we experienced. Most of the people arrested were innocent. All were accused of being enemies of the government.
The day the Court pronounced Habré guilty, there was total silence in the courtroom. I think we were all in shock. The widows of some of the victims reacted first and then we all responded with cries of joy, tears of relief, as well as hugs and handshakes.
The damage done by these horrendous actions cannot be undone. As Judge Gustave Kam, who presided over Habré’s trial, stated, “Some victims who are still alive, still suffer from the effects of his regime, the crimes committed against them.” In acknowledgement of this suffering, the court ruled that Habré must pay up to $34,000 (26,000 Euros) to each of the victims or their surviving family.
These reparations, as well as the ones announced in the domestic court against the secret police, are more than just compensation for victims whose lives have been ruined. They send a message to all heads of state, who continue to abuse their powers, that they cannot act with impunity. But I am worried that these funds will never reach the pockets of those for whom they are intended.
Therefore, we ask that the Court establish a Victim’s Fund that will put victims at the center of the process. We ask that the Fund have rules that are transparent and effective so that everyone can track how the money is being spent. We ask to continue to protect the identity of the victims and to maintain confidentiality in the operation of the Fund. And finally, we ask that the judiciary supervises and administers the Fund.
That means the Court must rule that Habré’s assets be traced and liquidated so that the money can be used to pay the victims, in both domestic and international courts. It means supporting the African Union’s work on transitional justice while it develops a system to administer reparations. It means continuing to advocate for our voices to be heard, now that the case is over.
We must ensure accountability from leaders who abuse their authority. If we do not receive redress for the crimes committed in Chad, my fear is that these historic proceedings will be forgotten, along with the survivors’ accounts of what really happened.
Clément Abaifouta is the President of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRHH).
Photo: A screen grab of the proceedings of the Extraordinary African Chambers.
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