N'DJAMENA, CHAD: "Since when has justice come all the way to Chad?" a former political prisoner asked as a group of torture victims discussed the idea of prosecuting the country's exiled ex-dictator Hissène Habré. Habré, who brutalized this impoverished country from 1982 to 1990, was then living safely in a seaside villa across the continent in Senegal, enjoying the $14 million he reportedly looted from the treasury on his way into exile.
But justice did come to Chad. It came in the form of a young Belgian judge, a Brussels prosecutor, four strapping police officers, and a court clerk, who arrived in this dusty capital to investigate charges filed against Habré in a Belgian court pursuant to that country's long-arm anti-atrocity law, which permits prosecution of the worst human rights crimes no matter where they took place.
When news of the group's arrival was announced on Chad's radio, former victims began to line up at the courthouse to tell their stories. Habré, once backed by the United States and France as a bulwark against Libya's Moammar Quadafi, allegedly killed tens of thousands of real and suspected opponents before he was deposed by his former army chief. Many of Habré's most brutal henchmen still occupy key security posts in the new administration, however, and coming forward remains a risky business. The judge's visit - and the Chad government's full cooperation - seemed to give the victims courage, however.
The judge and his team visited the five N'Djamena jails, including one in the presidential compound, where Habré's American-trained political police systematically tortured prisoners. Ismael Hachim, president of the victims' association, described how he was subjected to the "arbatachar," a common form of torture in which a victim's four limbs were tied tightly behind his back until blood circulation stopped and paralysis resulted.