DAKAR, Senegal — More than 1,000 people who suffered abuse under former Chad dictator Hissene Habre have submitted applications to participate in his trial on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture, lawyers said Wednesday.
Five of those who submitted applications spoke in Senegal's capital about the abuse they endured under Habre's regime, including food deprivation, electric shock and being forced to dig graves for hundreds of prisoners who died in detention. Habre has been charged by a special court in Senegal.
Clement Abaifouta, who is from Chad, said he was arrested in 1985 just as he was preparing to leave to study abroad in Germany. For four years, he dug graves while his health deteriorated to the point where he was no longer able to walk.
"I'm here to try to know exactly why I was arrested," he said, fighting back tears. "Because I cannot understand why, for wanting to go abroad, I was forced to lose four years of my life."
Habre ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. Human rights and victims groups said that soon after coming to power, he promoted members of his Gorane ethnic group to lead a ruthless torture and killing campaign that targeted members of other ethnic groups that threatened his rule. Habre's victims also included migrants from other countries, including Senegalese national Abdourahmane Gueye, who explained Wednesday that he was working as a trader in Chad before being rounded up in 1987 and imprisoned for six months, sharing a cell with 60 other people.
In May 1992, a Chadian truth commission reported that Habre's government was responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths. The commission placed particular blame against the Directorate of Documentation and Security, Habre's political police force, which "distinguished itself by its cruelty and its contempt for human life."
In 2001, Human Rights Watch researcher Reed Brody discovered the force's archives on the floor of its headquarters. The documents mentioned more than 12,000 victims of Chad's detention network.
Habre fled to Senegal after he fell from power, and for more than 20 years he lived a life of quiet luxury in exile, taking a second wife and becoming an uncomfortable reminder of Africa's unwillingness to try its own.
Last year, the government of President Macky Sall finally reached an agreement with the African Union to try Habre at a special court, and he was arrested on June 30. Two days later, judges formally charged him.
The applications for 1,015 victims trying to join the case as civil parties were submitted Monday by a legal team headed by Jacqueline Moudeina. Civil party status means the victims are formally recognized by the court. Nearly 300 are direct victims, meaning they were detained or otherwise victimized by Habre, and the rest were indirectly affected, meaning they had relatives who were victims and have since died.
The court has the power to order that reparations be paid into a victims' fund, but there is no guarantee it will do so. Those reparations would be available to all victims, not just those who participated in Habre's trial.
Defense lawyers have dismissed the tribunal as a political tool of Habre's enemies, emphasizing that the government of Chad President Idriss Deby, who removed Habre from office, is the court's largest donor. The defense team has filed a formal challenge to the tribunal at a separate court run by the regional West African body ECOWAS.
On Wednesday, Moudeina, the victims' lawyer, criticized what she described as an attempt to paint Habre as a victim. She compared Habre's legal strategy to that of other former heads of state — such as Liberia's Charles Taylor__ who have challenged the authority of the courts where they were ultimately tried.
Habre's challenge at the ECOWAS court should have no bearing on the case, regardless of how the court rules, she said.
"It's clear that the ECOWAS court doesn't have the ability to invalidate the acts of the African Union," she said.
Younous Mahadjir, who was arrested toward the end of Habre's rule for distributing pamphlets critical of the regime, on Wednesday described forms of torture including being forced to drink water until he lost consciousness. He said he lost 77 pounds in just four months of detention.
He said the court was the best chance for victims to see justice, though he acknowledged having doubts about whether the trial will be a success.
"It's difficult to have confidence. The court doesn't have a lot of money. Hissene Habre has a lot of money," he said. "I don't have complete confidence, but I know there are people who are trying to help us get a good result."