DAKAR (Reuters) - The trial of Chad’s former president Hissene Habre for crimes against humanity broke down on its first day on Monday as he was dragged from the courtroom after calling its members “traitors”.
Habre’s trial caps a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a coup.
Armed by Washington as its proxy in a war against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Habre is blamed by rights groups for widespread torture and the killing of up to 40,000 political opponents and ethnic rivals.
Dressed all in white and carrying prayer beads, the 72-year-old had to be forced to appear in the courtroom after he refused to recognize the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) established with the backing of the African Union.
“Down with imperialism! Down with colonialism!” Habre shouted before proceedings began, punching his fist in the air as half a dozen guards rushed to remove him. A small group of supporters was also removed.
Proceedings were suspended after Habre refused to return to the courtroom and presiding judge Gberdao Gustave Kam said he would be forced to attend on Tuesday. Habre’s lawyers were not present at the trial, alleging a lack of due process.
Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based watchdog, said the decision to force Habre to appear on Tuesday was a relief to victims who wished to look him in the eyes and ask why they were jailed and tortured.
Souleymane Guengueng, a former accountant who spent more than two years in Habre’s prisons, is among some 100 victims due to testify at the trial.
“We want to show the Chadian people, and why not all Africans, that no, you cannot govern in terror and criminality,” said Souleymane Guengueng, 66, who spent years secretly compiling evidence of Habre’s crimes after his fall.
The tribunal is supported by the African Union but is part of Senegal’s justice system, making it the first time in modern history that one country’s domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another country on rights charges.
A successful trial, conducted to high standards and leading to a credible verdict, would strengthen African countries’ argument that they should try their own, amid criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for indicting only Africans.
The trial is expected to last three months and Habre, who faces charges of war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity, could face a maximum of life in prison.
“This is the end of a nightmare,” said Jacqueline Moudeina, the lead lawyer for the victims. “The fact that he is here and listens to victims speak of all the atrocities they suffered is already a great victory.”
Many African leaders say the continent needs to provide its own justice because of what they see as the bias of the ICC. Since its founding in 2002, the Hague-based court has only investigated alleged rights crimes in African countries.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes in 2012 by a separate tribunal in The Hague and dozens of people behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide were tried by a special court in Tanzania — both ad hoc proceedings set up by the United Nations.
The case against Habre turns on whether he personally ordered the killing and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of up to 40,000 political murders, mostly by his intelligence police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Human Rights Watch in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandoned DDS headquarters updating Habre on the status of detainees. A court handwriting expert concluded that margin notes on one document were Habre’s.
“Rarely do we find so much evidence of crimes,” said Brody. “And these match the testimonies of the victims day for day, word for word.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Emma Farge,; Editing by Angus MacSwan