(Nairobi) – Security forces killed at least 13 people, including a 12-year-old child, and injured over 80 others in Abéché, Ouaddaï province, Chad, on January 24 and 25, 2022, Human Rights Watch and the Chadian Convention for the Defence of Human Rights (Convention Tchadienne de Défense des Droits de l’Homme – CTDDH) said today.
On January 24, security forces violently dispersed thousands of peaceful protesters who took to the streets of Abéché from the Mahamat Yacoub Dobio high school to the independence square to demonstrate against plans to appoint a new traditional chief from the ethnic Bani Halba community in Abéché. The city already has a traditional leader, called the sultan, from the Ouaddaïen community. The soldiers killed three people and injured at least 40 others. On January 25, at the funeral for those killed at the Tago Zagalo cemetery, soldiers indiscriminately shot live rounds again, killing an additional 10 people and injuring at least 40 others.
“The decision by security forces to open fire on peaceful protesters and residents is completely unjustifiable,” said Mahamat Nour Ahmat Ibédou, secretary general of the CTDDH. “Only a thorough and impartial investigation into the excessive use of force by security forces will be able to establish who is responsible and bring them to account.”
Some of the soldiers firing on the crowd appeared to be members of the Chadian army, as well as Chadian members of the Mixed Force, a Chadian/Sudanese military unit. The soldiers used teargas, assault rifles, and machine guns. During the January 24 protests, the soldiers also arrested 212 people, some of them arbitrarily, beating some of them and holding detainees in inhuman conditions for up to five days without charge. Those arrested were released between January 25 and 28.
Between January 30 and February 13, Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH interviewed 27 people by telephone, including 11 witnesses. Two of the witnesses had been arrested on January 24, and four injured. Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH also interviewed family members of victims, two medical professionals, and representatives of local civil society organizations.
Researchers also reviewed eight videos and 41 photographs shared directly with the two organizations or posted on social media platforms showing the excessive use of force by security forces on both days, along with medical records, death certificates, burial permits, media articles, and government statements. CTDDH representatives from N’Djamena visited Abéché from February 1 to 6 and met with local authorities, including Ahmat Dari Bazine, the governor of Ouaddaï province; Abdraman Mahamat, the commander of the gendarmerie company; Nicolas Ehka Pahimi, public prosecutor at the Abéché district court; Ahmat Nhonorti, delegate of the national police, Ousmane Bahr Mahamat Itno, commander of the Mixed Force and Hanno Mouro, commander of the military zone 2 and Abakar Hissein, the Ouaddaï province’s secretary general.
In a January 26 news release, Abderaman Koulamallah, the Chadian communication minister, said he regretted the “loss of human lives” but told the media that security forces did not use live ammunition against protesters and residents. “It is impossible to determine whether the gunshots were fired by security forces or by the protesters,” he said. On February 5, the CTDDH met with Mahamat, who said that on January 24 gendarmes seized 30 knives, 25 arrows, 4 grenades, and 9 guns of various calibers among the protesters.
However, Koulamallah’s and Mahamat’s positions are at odds with the findings by Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH, as well as the accounts of all witnesses interviewed. A protester from Abéché’s Goz Amir neighborhood told Human Rights Watch: “Soldiers fired everywhere. They shot at close range and indiscriminately at protesters. I saw people falling down, dead or injured.”
At least three witnesses said Governor Dari Bazine was present when security forces opened fire on protesters in Abéché’s main square on January 24. One of them, a 29-year-old man, said, “At 11 a.m. military vehicles came along with a Toyota V8 car with tinted windows. That was the car of the governor, I recognized it. Things got heated and following consultations between the military and those in the Toyota [the governor’s car], the shooting began.” Following the incidents, the population of Abéché called on the governor to resign. On February 2, the CTDDH met with the governor, the commander of the Mixed Force, and the commander of the military zone 2, but they refused to answer any questions about these events.
On February 23, the territorial administration minister issued a decree replacing him with Ibrahim Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, though the administrator did not say why.
Between January 27 and February 3, Chad’s communication, justice, public security, and territorial administration ministers visited Abéché to calm tensions and find a solution to the crisis. The ministers met with those injured at the hospital and the family members of victims. They also gave 423,000 CFA (US$731) to each of the 13 families of victims as compensation for their losses. “The money can cover some of the funeral expenses, but a human life is not worth that amount,” said the uncle of Moutawakil Yakhoub, a 28-year-old mechanic shot in the chest and killed by soldiers on January 25. “We want justice to be delivered and the killers of our sons brought before the courts.”
Internet and telephone networks were shut down in Abéché between January 24 and 28, making communication about the events almost impossible. Nationwide internet disruptions have been common in Chad since 2016. Digital rights organizations and members of the internet measurement community have reported a combined figure of 911 days of intentional internet disruptions of internet access or restrictions on access to some social media networks between the 2016 presidential election and April 2021.
International law and Chad’s transitional charter protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression and prohibit the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms state that law enforcement officials may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and that the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. International human rights standards require internet-based restrictions to be both necessary and proportionate responses to a specific national security concern. The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access to information and called on countries to refrain from such measures.
On February 4, Communication Minister Abderaman Koulamallah told the media that a police investigation had been opened into the incidents. But the outcome is yet to be made public.
The violence in Abéché was condemned by local human rights and civil society groups, lawyers, the National Commission for Human Rights, and Chad’s international partners. In a January 27 joint statement, the European delegation in Chad and diplomats from Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States expressed concerns about “the use of live bullets against protesters,” and called for the reestablishment of the internet and telecommunication networks and for respect for the right of peaceful assembly.
“Grieving families are waiting for answers from their government,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It should be a priority for the Chadian transitional authorities to ensure that all those responsible for this tragic loss of life are held to account.”
For more details and accounts from victims and witnesses, please see below.
Excessive Use of Force on January 24 and 25
Protesters and Residents Killed
Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH confirmed that security forces killed at least 13 people in Abéché on January 24 and 25, including two men and one 12-year-old boy on January 24, and 10 men on January 25.
The organizations reviewed 13 certificates issued by the Ouaddaï health department and signed by a doctor of the Abéché provincial hospital indicating the cause of the death for each victim, as well as 13 burial permits issued by the Abéché court of instance and signed by the public prosecutor. Eleven out of 13 death certificates state that victims died of wounds caused by a firearm. The two remaining certificates state that the victims died of wounds caused by a sharp object.
Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH reviewed a 19-second video sent directly to their staff showing at least nine bodies wrapped in blue plastic bags on the filthy floor of the mortuary of the Abéché provincial hospital. The organizations showed this video to four independent witnesses, who all confirmed it was filmed in the hospital on January 27.
Soldiers shot Hassan Ousmane, a 34-year-old day worker, in the head on January 25 in front of the Tago Zagalo cemetery, killing him. He was one of the thousands of people attending the burial of those killed the previous day. Ousmane’s brother was with him when soldiers opened fire:
Soldiers, including those from the joint Chad-Sudan military force, shot at us from their Toyota pickup and armored vehicles at close range. They were about 15 meters from where we were standing. They fired multiple times at the crowd without any reason. We were not armed; we were not violent. We were just burying our dead. We held signs in our hands saying we were coming in peace. But they shot randomly in all directions. My brother was hit in the head and fell on the ground immediately. I saw him falling, but I couldn’t do anything to rescue him. I just ran away and sought refuge in a nearby high school. I waited until I saw the soldiers picking up his body and putting it in their vehicle. I followed them with a motorbike till the Abéché provincial hospital. They dropped the body there and left.
Moutawakil Yakhoub, a 32-year-old mechanic, husband, and father of one child, was also at the Tago Zagalo cemetery when security forces opened fire. Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH reviewed the death certificate stating that he died from injuries in the cranium and thorax caused by a firearm. The organizations also reviewed one photograph taken after his death, and corroborated by a relative, showing him face down with his t-shirt covered in blood. His uncle said:
Someone called me to inform me that my nephew had been injured and was hospitalized. I rushed to the Abéché’s provincial hospital only to find out that he was already dead. I entered the mortuary to see his body. It was not even covered. He had clear gunshot wounds in the head and in the chest. And this is also what the doctor wrote in his death certificate.
Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH reviewed a 44-second video showing Chadian soldiers at the Tago Zagalo cemetery area riding Toyota Hilux trucks carrying heavy machine guns, including 12.7mm DShK and 7.62mm PK-series medium machine guns, that are constantly being fired indiscriminately and recklessly into the air as well as being fired at a flat trajectory.
Attacks on Protesters and Residents
Soldiers shot a 20-year-old student in the right arm on January 24 at about 11 a.m. as he walked out of the Abéché central market located near the main square of the city where protests were taking place. “I wasn’t among the protesters,” he said. “I found myself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Soldiers were shooting at random at close range from their vehicles. They fired at everything that moved. That’s how I got hit. And the injury was so bad and so badly treated that they had to amputate my arm.”
A 21-year-old student said he was at the Tago Zagalo cemetery when soldiers started shooting at those attending the burial. He said that he was hit by a bullet in the right arm and dislocated his left shoulder as he fell to the ground. “Soldiers fired from vehicles and from the ground,” he said. “I was not even 10 meters away from them. They shot repeatedly and in all directions. It was like a rain of bullets.” Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH also reviewed three photographs of the student with his right arm wrapped in a bandage at the clinic where he was treated and his medical records.
Arrests, Beatings, Extortion, and Theft on January 24
The CTDDH met with Mahamat, the commander of the gendarmerie company in Abéché, on February 5. Mahamat confirmed that on January 24, security forces arrested 212 people. All of them were released without charge between January 25 and January 28.
Human Rights Watch and the CTDDH spoke to two men among the arrested.
A resident of Abéché said soldiers arrested him on January 24, beat him up, and threatened to kill him, then took him to the gendarmerie brigade, where he was detained in a crammed cell without ventilation and sanitation facilities for four days. He also said soldiers stole his money, two phones, and a motorbike:
[The soldiers] tied me up, my hands from behind and my feet from the front. In this uncomfortable position, they hit me with various objects, including the butt of their guns, ropes, and hoses. They also kicked me everywhere in my body and slapped me in the face. A soldier stole 35,000 CFA ($60) from my pocket, two phones, and seized my motorbike. Other soldiers were beating people who were screaming out of pain. They [soldiers] put eight of us in a vehicle. They said: ‘If you move, we will kill you!’ They first took us to the governor’s office and then to the gendarmerie brigade. There, I found up to 200 arrested people. Gendarmes pushed us in tiny cells. I was with about 100 people in a cell of less than seven square meters without any windows. We could not breathe; we could not move. There was no toilet inside the cell, and we had to urinate and defecate on the floor. The smell was terrible. I felt we were treated worse than animals.
A 43-year-old hotel manager, who was not among the protesters, said he was arrested on January 24 and released the following day. He said gendarmes detained him in inhuman conditions and extorted money from him:
I had nothing to do with the protests and they arrested me without any reason. I was in front of my hotel which happens to be in the same area where the protests took place. Gendarmes stormed the hotel, put me on their vehicle, and took me to the gendarmerie brigade. I was surprised to see over 200 people there, all arrested. Some were children, some were injured, some were covered in blood, their clothes torn, their faces tired. Gendarmes beat some of them with whips and sticks, threatened them. I think I wasn’t beaten because I am an elderly man. They pushed over 100 of us in a tiny cell of about six or seven square meters. They didn’t give us food, only water. The following day they let me go, but they took 130,000 CFA ($224) from me.
Both men said the gendarmes did not provide any explanation for their arrest, demanding instead that the men explain the reason for their arrest.
Security forces also stole belongings from those arrested, including mobile phones, motorcycles, and money. The owners have yet to be compensated.
To Chadian Authorities
- Open a thorough and impartial investigation into the excessive use of force by the security forces in Abéché on 24 and 25 January;
- Identify and arrest all those responsible and bring them before the competent courts for prosecution;
- Ensure proportionate disciplinary punishment – including through dismissal where appropriate – of all those responsible;
- Ensure that any forces charged with policing demonstrations receive rights-respecting crowd control training and orders, which include respecting the right of peaceful assembly, using force only when necessary and proportionate in response to a genuine threat, and using lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life;
- Prohibit the use of the military or other security forces that are not trained in law enforcement, or with a history of abuse, to police demonstrations.