Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre is escorted by military officers after being heard by judge in Dakar, Senegal on July 2, 2013.

© 2013 Getty Images

“They owe me a child, they’re going to pay for what happened to my child!” shouted Oumar Goujda as he stood before the presiding judge of N’Djamena’s Criminal Court on November 21. 

In April 1989, as Hissène Habré’s government was conducting a campaign of repression against ethnic Zaghawas, the wealthy businessman was arrested in front of his family by Habré’s political police, the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS). Goujda’s pregnant wife was seized with panic and rushed to the hospital, where she lost her child that very night. She would not see her husband until his release from prison 20 months later.

During that time Oumar Goujda  was bound to a chair for five days and given electric shocks, then locked up in inhuman conditions for months afterward. “I watched Nodjigoto Haunan order his staff to torture me,” he said. “He was smoking a cigarette and asking me questions. I saw the viciousness in his eyes.”

Haunan, a former security chief, has been on trial since November 14, along with 20 of Habré’s other alleged henchmen: DDS members, army officers, and heads of intelligence agencies.

In 2000, 10 years after Habré’s fall and flight across the continent to Senegal, dozens of victims filed criminal complaints charging the officers with torture, killings, and unlawful detention. Nothing happened for 13 years, until Habré himself was arrested in Senegal by a special court established with African Union backing. Chadian officials then finally acted, arresting and charging a number of alleged former torturers.

For 24 years survivors, widows and orphans have been bravely fighting to force officials in Senegal and Chad to indict their alleged torturers. Their testimony in court appears to be a kind of healthy release. “They appear to be men, but really they are devils who created a hell,” roared Robert Hissein Gambier in court. Gambier barely survived after gas was sprayed into his ear. “The dead must have justice."

Amid this outpouring of wrenching stories the defendants, who have admitted to nothing, appear to be having difficulty defending themselves. Saleh Younouss, former director of the DDS, claimed to be the victim of “a genuine set-up” and places the responsibility on  Habré’s shoulders: “We received orders directly from the head of state,” he testified. Haunan accused human rights organizations of paying the victims to lodge complaints, provoking a wave of laughter in the courtroom.

Jacqueline Moudeina, the courageous Chadian lawyer who has fought alongside the victims since 2000, can now argue her case forcefully in a courtroom filled with well-armed police and soldiers to maintain security. For this icon of dignity, who survived an assassination attempt by one of the men on trial, the proceedings are “a necessary step toward reconciliation in Chad, for an end to impunity—and, above all else, so that the crimes of the past will never be repeated.”

In the courtroom, the deterrent effects of justice—however much delayed—are soon apparent: security forces watch carefully as, one after another, their former bosses attempt to clear themselves. Nearly all the defendants are policemen by training who, after their time with Habré, were recycled by the current administration of President Idriss Déby Itno into the roles they knew best: director of public security, head of counter-intelligence, chief police commissioner, head of police investigations, etc.

In his opening speech the public prosecutor, Bruno Louapambe Mahouli, assured listeners that he wanted “first and foremost for the trial to be fair and respectful of the rights of both sides,” so that “we can achieve the reconciliation all of us want.“ For a nation ranking among the poorest and most corrupt in the world, where human rights are routinely flouted and dissatisfaction has been intensifying for some months, the true challenge of this trial is indeed to make it  fair and impartial. Whether that will happen remains a question.

The Chadian bar association recently resumed a strike to demand $84 million in judgments and fees owed to the lawyers and their clients and it is not sure when the trial will resume.

This trial, which is being excerpted on public television news, is a test of efforts to establish the rule of law in Chad. Begun with less than two weeks of preparation, the trial is nevertheless expected to last only a month, and it is already feared that the proceedings will be hastily conducted and fail to satisfy expectations in Chadian society. A tainted process would be an insult to the victims. “We want an impartial decision that will satisfy all sides, and go down in Chad’s history, for the sake of the young and the future,” said Jean Noyoma, who was detained for 7 months and tortured. “An impartial trial would be a major contribution to peace”.

Henri Thulliez is the Human Rights Watch observer at the trial of the alleged accomplices of Hissène Habré in N’Djamena.