(Dakar) – Four women allegedly sent to the desert north of Chad in 1988 as sexual slaves for the army of the then-dictator, Hissène Habré, testified on October 19-22, 2015, that soldiers at the camp had repeatedly raped multiple women, Human Rights Watch said today. One of them testified that Habre himself had also raped her. One was 13 at the time, and another said that soldiers raped her 13-year-old daughter.

Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, is standing trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system on charges of crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes.

Haoua Brahim testifies during the trial of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré in Senegal on October 21, 2015. She and other women described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. 

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“These brave women have broken a long silence to talk about the most painful things possible,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch, who has worked with the victims since 1999. “The use of women and girls as sexual slaves has not always received the attention it deserves, but after almost 30 years, this trial offers these women the opportunity to finally place their abuses on the record.” 

The four women, Khadidja Hassan Zidane, Kaltouma Deffalah, Haoua Brahim, and Hadje Mérami Ali, described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. The soldiers repeatedly raped most of the nine women, they testified. Official documents of Habré’s political police, the DDS, recovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001, confirm that nine women were sent to the desert and record the imprisonment of the four former detainees who testified.

Hadje Mérami Ali testifies during the trial of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré in Senegal on October 21 and 22, 2015. She and other women described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. 

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Zidane also testified that before she was sent to the desert, she was imprisoned on the presidential grounds and that Habré had raped her on four occasions. Deffalah said that Zidane had given her the same account when the two women were detained together in the desert.

Brahim was only 13 when she was arrested as a hostage to trap her mother, who was living abroad. When her mother went to N’djaména, the Chadian capital, to try to save her daughter, the two were sent to the desert. Amnesty International mounted a campaign on their behalf in 1988, and many letters from Amnesty members to Habré requesting their release were found in the DDS files.

After Merami Ali was arrested, her 13-year-old daughter, Azina, was arrested as well, and the two were sent to Oudi-Doium, where, the mother testified, soldiers raped her young daughter.

These brave women have broken a long silence to talk about the most painful things possible. The use of women and girls as sexual slaves has not always received the attention it deserves, but after almost 30 years, this trial offers these women the opportunity to finally place their abuses on the record.

Reed Brody

Counsel at Human Rights Watch

All the women testified that, before their release, they were forced to swear on the Koran that they would never talk about their experiences.

The women testified with various degrees of difficulty and precision about their ordeals. One, who had spoken of her rape in a pretrial deposition, said that as the trial is being televised back to Chad, and streamed on the internet, she could not repeat the details in public.

Deffalah said that she was “very proud and strong to be here today telling [her] story when this man [Habré], who was once the dictator, is sitting there silently.” 

Kaltouma Deffalah testifies during the trial of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré in Senegal on October 20, 2015. She and other women described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. 

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Responding to the women’s testimony, the “official website of President Hissein Habré,” which has been presenting Habré’s position and his lawyers’ statements for the last three years, published a series of communiqués. One called Hassan a “nymphomaniac prostitute.” Another called Merami Ali a “cabaret dancer” and a prostitute. Several of the women, along with Brahim’s mother, were accused of being spies for Libya, which had fought a war with Chad. Earlier, the website had called a former detainee a “crazy whore.” The detainee, Fatimé Hachim, had testified at the trial that Habré had told her while she was in jail that she would never get out.

The trial chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habre ruled Chad. The president of the Trial Chamber is Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, who sits with two senior Senegalese judges.

Habre is accused of tens of thousands of political killings as well as systematic torture during his rule, from 1982 to 1990. The trial is the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another country for alleged human rights crimes.

Khadidja Hassan Zidane testifies during the trial of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré in Senegal on October 19 and 20, 2015. She and other women described their experiences in the desert camp at Oudi-Doum, where nine women and girls were allegedly forced to serve the soldiers of Hissène Habré’s army. 

© 2015 Radiodiffusion Télévision Sénégalaise

The indictment does not include charges of rape, sexual enslavement, or other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity. The victims’ lawyers have asked that these charges be added.

The trial is now in its seventh week and is expected to last into December. Thus far, 48 victims and witnesses have testified, including historical experts, the president of Chad’s truth commission, former members of Habré’s DDS, the Belgian judge who carried out a four-year investigation, researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and forensic and handwriting experts.