(Nairobi) – Chad’s security forces used excessive force in recent days against opposition members and supporters protesting the government’s “national dialogue” to lead to new national elections, Human Rights Watch said today. The security force response undermines any hope that the national dialogue will make progress toward elections.
The national dialogue opened on August 20, 2022 in N’Djamena, the capital, and was to be open to all segments of society. The aim is to establish a timeline and rules for presidential elections, promised for October by Mahamat Idriss Déby, who took power in April 2021 after the death of his father, Idriss Déby Itno. The main opposition party, The Transformers (Les Transformateurs), has opposed the dialogue deeming it “not inclusive” and has mobilized its members and supporters to protest against it.
“Chad’s transitional government is once again failing to take any responsibility for its security forces’ abusive actions against peaceful protesters and political opponents, showing a total disregard for fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately end the assault on the opposition, rein in security forces, and ensure that those implicated in rights violations are held accountable.”
Government forces injured scores of protesters in N’Djamena during the first 10 days of September, including with improper use of teargas. Security forces also arrested over 220 people, according to leaders of The Transformers who spoke to Human Rights Watch, several of whom have subsequently reported inhuman detention conditions.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 people between September 1 and 16, including 12 protesters and members of The Transformers, 3 human rights activists, 2 lawyers, and 3 journalists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed 2 videos and 45 photographs of protests shared with its researchers and reviewed reporting by media and national and international rights groups. In a telephone call with Abderaman Koulamallah, Chad’s communication minister on September 22, Human Rights Watch shared its findings.
On September 1, security forces arrested over 80 members and supporters of The Transformers, including 7 women, as the members were seeking to inform the public about a September 3 party meeting. “They called me ‘slave’ and pushed me in a tiny cell of less than 6 square meters along with at least 60 other party activists,” a party member said. “The cell was dark and stuffy, ventilation was poor, we were denied any contact with the outside world.”
On September 2, security forces cordoned off The Transformers’ headquarters in N’Djamena’s Abena neighborhood, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, and used teargas to disperse party members and supporters who had gathered there to protest the previous day’s arrests. “We were trapped inside [the party headquarters] and watched as the police brutalized our members and dispersed them with violence,” a party leader said. “They fired teargas canisters against our windows, breaking some. The siege was lifted only three days later.”
According to party members who spoke to Human Rights Watch and the media, security forces also arrested at least 140 people.
Communication Minister Koulamallah claimed that violent protesters outnumbered security forces, and attacked and threw rocks at them. “First, security forces asked protesters to evacuate; protesters refused; and some members of the security forces almost got lynched,” the minister said. “Police launched an ultimatum to protesters, but it didn’t work. The Transformers stirred up peoples’ anger and kept throwing huge rocks at the police, who eventually decided to disperse them with teargas.”
All those arrested on September 1 and 2 were released without charges on September 5, as confirmed to the media by Idriss Dokony Adiker, the public security minister.
On September 3, security forces continued their crackdown in and around Abena neighborhood, using teargas against people who had met at the party headquarters to listen to their leader’s speech. Security forces also broke into several homes of members and supporters of The Transformers.
The security forces also beat four Chadian journalists, including Aristide Djimalde, a 25-year-old reporter working for Alwihda Info, and arrested three of them for covering the crackdown. “The police fired teargas and I sought shelter in a private home with about 10 protesters,” Djimalde said. “The police broke into the house, seized my badge and telephone, deleted all videos and photographs of the protests I had taken, and savagely beat me in my back and arms, before also kicking and slapping the other protesters.”
On September 9, security forces fired teargas to disperse hundreds of people accompanying the party leader, Succès Masra, to the courthouse to respond to a summons from the prosecutor of N’Djamena’s Court of First Instance.
“It was like a war,” said a 33-year-old protester. “Police fired a lot of teargas, and we all struggled to breathe and see. They fired from less than 100 meters from us, and I was hit by a teargas canister on the chest. It was painful, it burned me.”
Koulamallah said that the prosecutor had decided unilaterally to summon Masra, but that “Masra decided to go to the court accompanied by hundreds of his supporters, which is an inadmissible action in a democracy […] justice is like a neutral place […] You cannot put pressure on justice, you cannot make the law yourself.” International law on rights to freedom of association and assembly protects peaceful assemblies including any peaceful march to or gathering near a courthouse.
On September 11, diplomatic representatives from the African Union, the European Union, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom in Chad issued a statement expressing concern about the crackdown on The Transformers and calling for respect for the rule of law. The Chadian human rights commission and local and international human rights groups also condemned the security forces’ excessive use of force.
International law, African human rights law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and Chad’s transitional charter enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and prohibit excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, security forces may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the threat, and the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“At a time when the country is trying to heal its wounds, security forces’ abuse will only set back Chadian reconciliation, and instead the transitional authorities should ensure respect for the rights to freedom of assembly and expression,” Mudge said. “To this end, they should also ensure that security forces exercise restraint during all protests and gatherings, urgently investigate the attacks on the opposition, and allow all Chadians to fully participate in political life without hinderance.”