UBC expert at historic torture trial in Chad
Allard School of Law professor Nicole Barrett is in Chad to monitor the continuing trial of 21 former government agents who stand accused of mass murder and torture while serving under former Chadian president Hissène Habré from 1982 to 1990.
While in power, Habré ruled the north central African country with an iron fist and allegedly oversaw the execution of more than 40,000 people. The Document and Security Directorate (DDS), a political police force he created, is accused of torturing people with burning, poisoning, and electric shock, among other abuses.
Barrett discusses the Chadian trial’s significance, its fairness and what this could mean for the future prosecution of international crimes.
How will you monitor the trial? What do you expect to see argued in court?
I will be attending the trial every day, meeting with government officials to encourage fair proceedings, and tweeting updates on the trial daily on my Twitter handle, @nicole1barrett, when Internet bandwidth permits.
The crimes alleged in these cases include wide-scale murder, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and barbaric acts. One of the defendants, Saleh Younous, was the former director of Habré’s political police. Another, Mahamat Djibrine, is known as the most feared torturer in Chad.
The victims’ families are attending the trial as well, so the courtroom is filled with emotion. They have been campaigning for 24 years to see Habré and his accomplices face justice.
What impact will the courts’ verdicts have on the people of Chad? What significance will the outcome have on the international stage?
The trial is a major event in Chad’s history. If the trial meets international standards, the regime’s victims will finally begin to regain a sense of dignity after more than two decades. If fair trial standards are compromised, it will be yet another insult to the victims and their families.
The trial is also important, as it is an African national justice system seeking accountability for the country’s brutal past, which could potentially be a catalyst for greater accountability on the continent.
If fairly conducted, the trial will show that international courts in The Hague or elsewhere are not the only courts that can try African dictators. National accountability can work as well.
Are there reasons for concern about judicial fairness?
Yes, the Chad judiciary has been rushing the trial process. All sides were given only two weeks to prepare for trial. The victims’ lawyers say they were only notified that the case was proceeding the day it appeared on the docket of the Indicting Chamber. No lawyers were present at the start of proceedings, as the entire bar association went on strike, and the accused entered pleas without lawyers present.
Thankfully, the Chad judiciary then suspended the case until a settlement was reached with the bar association so the accused now have lawyers. There remains, however, an urgency to complete the trial as quickly as possible, which raises fair-process concerns.
Barrett was a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague and is currently the director of the Joint International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at UBC and York University’s Osgoode Hall.