N‘DJAMENA (Reuters) - A court in Chad sentenced exiled former President Hissene Habre and leaders of an eastern rebellion to death in absentia at a mass trial on Friday.
Human rights groups and victims associations accuse Habre of instigating widespread political killings and torture during his 8-year rule in Chad, an oil producing country in central Africa.
Court Clerk Enoch Ngartebaye told Reuters the Hissene Habre named in a court ruling was indeed the former president, who has lived in exile in Senegal since Idriss Deby, now Chad’s president, overthrew him in 1990.
Dozens of people accused of crimes against state security were put on trial in absentia on Tuesday, but they had no legal defense in the three-day hearing.
Habre’s lawyer in Senegal, El Hadj Diouf, said he had hear nothing official about the trial in Chad.
“This is a manipulation ... I‘m not taking this seriously,” said Diouf, who is preparing Habre’s defense for a trial to be held in Senegal on the instruction of the African Union.
One rebel leader sentenced to death said he didn’t even know he had been on trial.
“I’ve heard nothing about this ... it is they who should be put on trial,” Timane Erdimi, leader of the rebel Rally of Forces for Change (RFC), told Reuters by satellite phone.
“They issued an international arrest warrant in 2007, but I’ve heard nothing since,” said Erdimi, who said he was near Guereda, a Chadian town close to the border with Sudan’s Darfur.
Court president Judge Ngarhondo Dgide pronounced death sentences against 12 men including Habre, Nouri and Erdimi. Thirty-two others were sentenced, also in absentia, to hard labor for attempting to overturn constitutional order.
The court did not issue arrest warrants for those sentenced in absentia. Ngartebaye declined to comment on whether Chad would seek Habre’s extradition from Senegal.
Beyond political symbolism, it was unclear how the sentences would affect Deby’s campaign against eastern rebel groups he says are backed by the Sudanese government, which Sudan denies.
But a court order to confiscate the belongings of those convicted could mean their relatives could lose any property registered in the names of the accused.
Deby has been fighting a sporadic rebellion based around the country’s eastern border with Darfur whose 5-year-old conflict has spilled over the frontier, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees, as well as armed rebels, into eastern Chad.
Erdimi’s men joined the rebel National Alliance, led by the Mahamat Nouri, head of another rebel faction, in a February assault on the western capital N‘Djamena which besieged Deby’s presidency for several days before being driven out of town.
Libyan-supplied armaments delivered with help from former colonial ruler France helped turn the tide of the battle, capitalizing on divisions within rebel ranks over how to share out top positions if Deby was toppled.
Additional reporting and writing by Alistair Thomson, editing by David Lewis and Mary Gabriel