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

Dramatic evidence presented at the trial in Chad of 21 former security agents confirms that torture was systematic during the Hissène Habré dictatorship, from 1982 to 1990, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the trial began on November 14, 2014, about 50 victims have described their torture and mistreatment at the hands of agents of the Directorate of Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), Habré’s political police.

“This trial is Chad’s rendezvous with history,” said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, who has been observing the proceedings. “For the first time, after 24 years, victims are getting their day in court as the abuses of the Habré government are being presented for all to hear.”

On January 14, 2015, Mahamat Hassan Abakar, president of Chad’s 1992 National Truth Commission, told the court that “torture was systematic” in the DDS. “The DDS agents were supermen because they enjoyed total impunity. Once you were arrested by the DDS you had no recourse.” An hour earlier, many in the courtroom wept at the screening of the video produced by the commission, showing a series of mass graves, the inside of Habré’s jails, drawings of the main forms of torture, and footage of emaciated prisoners released after Habré’s fall.

The trial comes as a special chamber in an appeal court in Dakar, Senegal, set up to hear the Habre case, wraps up its investigation into alleged crimes by the former dictator. That court, the Extraordinary African Chambers, indicted Habré in July 2013 and, if the investigating judges decide there is sufficient evidence, his trial is scheduled to begin in Senegal in May 2015.

The defendants on trial in N’Djaména are accused of murder, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and assault and battery. The defendants include Saleh Younouss, a former director of the DDS, and Mahamat Djibrine, described as one of the “most feared torturers in Chad” by the Truth Commission. Both men are also wanted by the Extraordinary African Chambers, but Chad declined to transfer them.

Josué Doumasen, among many others, described being subjected to the “arbatachar,” a frequently used torture method that involved tying all four of a prisoner's limbs behind their back to interrupt the bloodstream and quickly induce paralysis. Several women alluded to their rape in detention.

Ginette Ngarbaye, arrested when she was pregnant and tortured with electric shocks, gave birth to her first child in prison. Clement Abaifouta, the president of the victims’ association, described how he was forced to bury the bodies of deceased detainees in mass graves.

The defendants, all represented by Chadian lawyers, have for the most part denied any wrongdoing. On January 15, the court began calling the defendants in pairs and groups to answer questions about (“confront”) aspects of their testimonies where they conflicted with one another.  

Although the trial began on November 14, it was suspended on November 21 because of a lawyers’ strike. It resumed on December 23. It is now scheduled to end on January 29. Hundreds of Chadians have attended the trial each day, and it is being summarized each day on the evening news.

Other defendants include Nodjigoto Haunan, former director of the National Security Agency (Sureté nationale), implicated in the repression against the Zaghawa ethnic group, and Khalil Djibrine, former department head of the DDS in the south of Chad during the repression there of 1983-1984. A full list of those standing trial can be found here.

Human Rights Watch said that it regretted that a hasty pretrial investigation had failed to prepare a solid record on each defendant or to analyze the workings and structure of the DDS. Whereas the investigators of the Extraordinary African Chambers interviewed about 2,500 witnesses and victims, analyzed the DDS documents, assigned experts to dissect Habré’s command structure, and uncovered mass graves, the Chadian investigation interviewed fewer than 100 victims and accused and called no outside witnesses.

Habre’s one-party rule, from 1982 to 1990, was marked by widespread atrocities, including the targeting of certain ethnic groups. DDS files recovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001 reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. Habré was deposed in 1990 by the current president, Idriss Déby Itno. Habré fled to Senegal and lived there in exile. He was indicted by the Extraordinary African Chambers in July 2013 and placed in pretrial detention.