(Nairobi) – Chad’s security forces have ruthlessly cracked down on protesters and the political opposition in the lead-up to the country’s April 11, 2021 presidential election, harming Chadians’ right to freely choose their elected representatives, Human Rights Watch said today. Incumbent President Idriss Déby Itno, who has ruled Chad since December 1990 when he removed the autocratic leader Hissène Habré, is running for a sixth term.
Since February, a coalition of nongovernmental groups, labor unions, and opposition political parties have organized peaceful demonstrations in the capital, N’Djamena, and other cities across the country, despite a government ban on public gatherings. Witnesses described how security force members beat protesters with whips, sticks, and batons; pulled a wounded person out of a car and beat other passengers; arbitrarily arrested scores of people, and, in the attack on the home of an opposition leader, killed his mother. One protester said he was subjected to electric shocks while in detention.
“As many Chadians are bravely taking to the streets to peacefully call for change and respect of their basic rights, Chad’s authorities have responded by crushing dissent and hope of a fair or credible election,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should respect freedom of speech and assembly, ensure that police exercise restraint during opposition protests, and urgently investigate the deadly assault on the family of an opposition leader and other allegations of abuse.”
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews by telephone between March 22 and 30 with 24 human rights activists, protesters, opposition party leaders and members, lawyers, and journalists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed videos and photographs and reviewed reporting by media outlets and national and international rights groups. Human Rights Watch spoke with Chad’s justice minister Djimet Arabi on April 7. He said that security forces acted with “professionalism” while policing protests and that they had a responsibility to put an end to demonstrations that had been banned and that “sometimes led to violence and public disorder, with protesters burning tires on different roads.”
Human Rights Watch found that security forces used teargas to disperse peaceful protesters in N’Djamena on February 6, February 15, March 20, and March 27, injuring dozens of protesters and bystanders. They also arbitrarily arrested at least 112 opposition party members and supporters and civil society activists, subjecting some to severe beatings and other ill-treatment. In a brazen attack on the home of a political opposition leader and presidential candidate Yaya Dillo on February 28, security forces killed his 80-year-old mother and wounded five other family members.
Communications Minister Chérif Mahamat Zene said in a February 28 statement that the purpose of the raid was to arrest Dillo, who had failed to comply with two judicial warrants. He said that Dillo “put up an armed resistance” and that two people were killed and five others injured in the fight, including three members of the security forces. The witnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke reject this account and maintain that there was no armed response from Dillo’s home.
Protesters told Human Rights Watch that they demonstrated to call for political change, and for an end to social and economic injustices. They cited the appalling rates of poverty, despite the country’s vast oil resources. Chad was placed last in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index, while the United Nations Development Programme ranked Chad 187 out of 189 countries in its 2020 human development index.
“We are an oil-rich nation, but the population remains desperately poor because resources have been misused,” Mahamat Nour Ibedou, a prominent human rights defender, told Human Rights Watch. “There’s an extremely wealthy elite made up of a few people close to the government, and then there’s a whole population struggling to survive and living in dire conditions, eating once a day.”
Seventeen candidates submitted their applications to contest the presidential election. On March 3, Chad’s Supreme Court stated that only 10 had been approved, rejecting the remaining candidates on grounds that their parties were not “legally constituted.”
Following the deadly raid on Dillo’s home, some of the remaining candidates withdrew, including Saleh Kebzabo, president of the opposition party National Union for Democracy and Revival (Union nationale pour la démocratie et le renouveau, UNDR), who denounced a “climate of insecurity and militarization of the political scene” and called for a boycott of the elections. Dillo, whose candidacy was not accepted, went into hiding after his home was attacked.
Opposition parties have accused the government of using Covid-19 regulations to block their campaigns and ban political gatherings, including a strict lockdown that was imposed in N’Djamena from January 1 to March 10.
“The authorities have used the pandemic as an excuse to quash the political opposition,” Mahamat Ahmat Lazina, president of opposition party Mouvement National pour le Changement au Tchad (MNCT), told Human Rights Watch. “They imposed a lockdown not because they cared about the health of people, but because they wanted to stop opposition parties from mobilizing support. We watched President Déby travel to all of Chad’s provinces and organize meetings with hundreds of people, while we were forced to stay home.”
The security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters violates not only their rights to free speech, assembly, and liberty but also the absolute prohibition on inflicting inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.
The Chadian government should instruct the police and gendarmes to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines on Policing Assemblies in Africa. Under these principles, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. Anyone found not to act in compliance with them should be held to account and appropriately punished.
“Human rights violations and denial of fundamental freedoms have undermined the credibility of Chad’s upcoming elections,” Sawyer said. “Chad’s international partners should not turn a blind eye to the abuses but instead press the government to respect freedom of assembly, rein in the security forces, and ensure accountability for abuses.”
For more information on the recent repression in Chad, please see below.
Chad has received significant international support for its role in the fight against armed Islamist groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin. Chad has committed 1,000 troops to the G5 Sahel Joint Force – a military force created to counter Islamist armed groups in the Sahel region, with support from the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, among others.
It has also contributed 3,000 soldiers to the Multinational Joint Task Force, a joint military force mandated by the African Union to respond to Boko Haram attacks across the Lake Chad basin, with support from the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, hosts the headquarters of Barkhane, the French counterterrorism force operating in Mali.
But Déby’s government has a long track record of cracking down on fundamental freedoms and banning or repressing peaceful demonstrations. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that while Article 28 of the revised 2018 Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, the law regulating the conditions under which assemblies can be restricted has never been adopted, leading the authorities to use outdated decrees from 1962 to ban peaceful protests.
Repression of Demonstrations on February 6 and 15
Media outlets and Amnesty International reported that security forces fired teargas to disperse peaceful demonstrations in N’Djamena on February 6 and arrested dozens of people, including Ibedou, secretary general of the Chadian Human Rights Convention. Success Masra, head of the opposition party Les Transformateurs, who participated in the demonstration, sought refuge at the US embassy in N’Djamena. On February 11, the embassy issued a statement saying that it “received assurances” from the Chadian government that Masra “would not be arrested if he departed the embassy” and asked Masra to leave. He has not been arrested since leaving the embassy.
On February 15, police in N’Djamena fired teargas to disperse a peaceful march organized by the MNCT opposition party, other political parties, and civil society organizations. Several protesters and their lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the police arrested over 30 demonstrators and beat many of them. Two were held for nine days without charge, while the others were released the day of arrest, also without being charged.
Lazina, the MNCT president, was among those arrested, and he later told Human Rights Watch: “They took me to N’Djamena’s third district police station and from there to a building of the police intelligence service within the same compound. Then they beat me. Six policemen and intelligence officers in plain clothes hit me with sticks and kicked me repeatedly on my back.”
Lazina was released later that day. Human Rights Watch reviewed Lazina’s medical records issued by a doctor at the Sultan Cherif Kasser hospital in N’Djamena on February 16, acknowledging that Lazina was temporarily incapacitated due to spinal, pelvic, and thoracic pain following a traumatic injury suffered on February 15.
A 46-year-old member of the MNCT, who was also among those arrested, said that he was tortured at the headquarters of the police intelligence service by men in plain clothes: “They beat me and gave me electric shocks with cables, three times, on the day of my arrest. They wanted me to confess, to tell them who organized the march and who was behind the demonstrations. They also hit me with a whip multiple times before throwing me in a cell where I slept for eight days on the floor.”
The Attack at Yaya Dillo’s House on February 28
Dillo, Chad’s former representative to the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), told Human Rights Watch that members of the presidential guard, soldiers, and policemen attacked his home at about 5 a.m. on February 28. Human Rights Watch spoke with four other witnesses to the attack and reviewed photographs of the body of Dillo’s mother and of injured people, and video footage showing his house and property that was damaged in the attack.
Dillo and four other witnesses said that security forces killed Dillo’s mother and son and injured at least five other family members. Chad’s justice minister told Human Rights Watch that Dillo’s son was not killed in the attack. Video footage shows at least one member of the security forces who was injured. Witnesses said that other security force members shot him when he refused an order to mount an assault on Dillo’s home. Chad’s justice minister said that two security force members were killed and that three or four other security force members were injured. He added that a judicial investigation has been opened to determine who was responsible for the death of Dillo’s mother and the deaths of two security force members.
“They came with military vehicles to destroy me and my house,” Dillo said. “They fired indiscriminately at all civilians who were in the house. They killed one of my sons, a little child of 11 years old, and my 80-year-old mother.”
A witness to the attack said that soldiers surrounded Dillo’s home and forced their way into his compound with tracked and wheeled armored vehicles: “They crushed the gate of the compound with an armored vehicle and smashed at least four vehicles parked in the courtyard. We, the people who had gathered at Dillo’s house, resisted by throwing stones and other objects at the soldiers.”
Another witness, and a relative of Dillo’s, said he was shot and wounded in his right tibia when the soldiers started firing inside Dillo’s home: “The military sprayed us with gunfire. They fired several rounds of bullets and one hit me in the leg. I fell down and was later taken to the hospital for treatment.”
While Chad’s justice minister told Human Rights Watch that there were armed men with Dillo who responded to the security forces with gunfire, all the witnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch denied that there was any armed security at Dillo’s home who fired at security forces or provoked any use of weapons or lethal force.
Dillo had refused, on his lawyer’s advice, to respond to an earlier arrest warrant, which they say was not lawfully executed.
Netblocks, a nonprofit organization monitoring internet censorship, reported that internet access in Chad was severely disrupted on February 28 following the deadly raid at Dillo’s house. Several other people interviewed confirmed it. A N’Djamena-based reporter said:
The government was extremely nervous because scenes of the attack [on Dillo’s home] were filmed by witnesses and were being circulated on social media. I did not have access to the internet for several days and had to buy a Cameroonian sim card in order to communicate with the outside. The internet block hindered people from communicating with each other and prevented journalists from reporting on unfolding events.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access to information.
The spokesperson of the United Nations secretary-general said on March 1 that he “regrets the use of violence and the resulting loss of life” at Dillo’s residence and urged authorities “to conduct a prompt and rigorous investigation into the incident and to hold perpetrators accountable.” France’s foreign minister also said that the Chadian government should open an independent investigation into the incident and ensure freedom of assembly ahead of the elections.
Repression of Demonstrations on March 20 and 27
Ten witnesses said that the police violently dispersed peaceful demonstrations organized by a coalition of nongovernmental groups, unions and opposition parties in N’Djamena on March 20 and 27. Witnesses said that anti-riot police fired teargas canisters directly at protesters, turning them into dangerous projectiles that led to serious injuries.
Human Rights Watch reviewed five videos from the March 20 protest, where peaceful demonstrators can be seen singing the national anthem, calling for Déby to step down, and calling for jobs for the youth and access to basic services for the population. Eight witnesses, three lawyers, and media reports said that the anti-riot police dispersed the demonstration by firing teargas and beating protesters, injuring at least 10 people. They then rounded up and arrested at least 40 people.
“I was hit and burned in my left thigh by a teargas cartridge fired by anti-riot police just some 10 meters away,” said a civil society activist who participated in the demonstration. “The police seemed to fire these cartridges indiscriminately. While I was being taken to the hospital in a car, a police vehicle rear-ended ours. The police took us out of the car and fired teargas again. I couldn’t breathe. One of the people in the car with me collapsed. The police beat him with a truncheon on his back and shoulders before taking us all to the police station.”
A member of an opposition party who also participated in the demonstration said: “We were waiting to start the march in front of the premises of the Chadian Workers’ Union when the police came and started firing teargas. They fired from close range. I was hit by a cartridge fired at me from about two meters away. I was injured on my right shoulder.”
A member of an opposition party who was among the March 27 protestors said: “Our policemen are not professional. When they fired teargas, they did not aim at the ground, but at our heads! I saw how they were throwing the cartridges irresponsibly. They also fired huge quantities of teargas, making the air unbreathable and causing protestors to feel dizzy or collapse."
Media outlets, as well as protestors and lawyers interviewed, said that the police arbitrarily arrested at least 40 protesters and bystanders during the March 20 demonstrations, and at least 28 during the March 27 demonstrations. The police also beat some of the protesters either upon arrest or at the police stations. All protesters have been released.
Police arrested and beat François Djékombé, president of the opposition party Union sacrée pour la République (USPR) on March 27. “I was thrown into the police vehicle and beaten up by four police officers,” he said. “I fell on my neck, which is still hurting. A policeman slapped me twice, while another forced me to lie down in the vehicle and shoved his boots into my neck.”
The well-known Chadian rap singer, Alfred Ngueita Allashasko (known as “N2A”), said that he was arrested both on March 20 and March 27. “The policemen were brutal. On both occasions, they beat me up,” he said. “They put me in their vehicle with other protesters and kicked me with their boots. On March 20, I also witnessed a police officer beating a pregnant woman with a stick.” A lawyer said that a police officer beat one of his clients, a pregnant woman who participated in the protest, at N’Djamena’s 6th district police and that she was taken to a health center for treatment.