Senegal put former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre in the dock Monday, 25 years after the end of his bloodsoaked reign of terror at home, in a trial seen as a test case for African justice.
Once dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet”, the 72-year-old has been in custody in Senegal since his arrest in June 2013 at the home he shared in an affluent suburb of Dakar with his wife and children.
Dressed in white robes and a turban, Habre pumped a fist in the air and cried “God is greatest” as he was escorted by prison guards into the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital.
He had said he did not recognise the court’s jurisdiction and vowed that he and his lawyers would play no part, but was forced into the dock by prison guards.
The president of the chamber, Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, announced that the military strongman was not represented as he opened proceedings.
Habre — backed during his presidency by France and the United States as a bulwark against Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi — is on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad from 1982 to 1990.
Several supporters, mostly young, screamed slogans condemning the trial in the lobby of the Dakar courthouse and were thrown out by police.
“I am sad, I am ashamed. This is happening in a country like Senegal,” one of Habre’s supporters said, describing the defendant as “a liberator of Chad”.
Rights groups say 40,000 Chadians were killed under a regime propped up by fierce crackdowns on opponents and the targeting of rival ethnic groups he perceived as a threat to his stranglehold on the central African nation.
Delayed for years by Senegal, the trial has set a historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried in international courts.
Senegal and the African Union signed an agreement in December 2012 to set up a court to bring Habre to justice.
The AU had mandated Senegal to try Habre in July 2006, but the country stalled the process for years under former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was defeated in 2012 elections.
Macky Sall, Wade’s successor who took office in April 2012 vowed to organise a trial in Senegal.
“This is the first case anywhere in the world — not just in Africa — where the courts of one country, Senegal, are prosecuting the former leader of another, Chad, for alleged human rights crimes,” Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told AFP.