DAKAR, Senegal — The trial of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre accused of overseeing the deaths of thousands had a chaotic beginning Monday as security forces ushered the ex-leader into and then out of the Senegal courtroom amid protests by his supporters.
Habre, who ruled in Chad from 1982-1990, is facing charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture before the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special tribunal created to try him in Senegal, in a major precedent for justice in Africa.
Lawyers for Habre said court officials took him to the courtroom to participate in the trial against his will.
"This is not a trial, this is a masquerade!" said a white robed Habre soon after entering. "There is no trial. There are no lawyers. This is a false trial. Down with colonialism."
His supporters started shouting as well, prompting security officers to surround him and carry him out.
Proceedings then began without him. One of his lawyers, Cire Cledor Ly, removed his legal robes in protest and took a seat in the courtroom.
Habre was first indicted by a Senegalese judge in 2000, according to Human Rights Watch, but twists and turns over a decade brought the case to Belgium, and then finally back to Senegal, where Habre fled after being overthrown in 1990.
Under a new president, Senegal's national assembly adopted a much-anticipated law to create the special tribunal.
It is the first trial in Africa of a universal jurisdiction case, in which a country's national courts can prosecute serious crimes committed abroad, by a foreigner and against foreign victims, said Human Rights Watch. It is also the first time the courts of one country are prosecuting the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.
"This is a first in Africa, and we must extend congratulations for this," said Mbaye Gueye, a neutral legal representative who addressed the court and called for a fair trial.
Jacqueline Moudeina, the lead counsel for Habre's alleged victims, said she made a plea in the name of more than 4,000 victims and urged the court to give them justice.
"The world watches you, it watches us. This process touches humanity ... a humanity that was not afforded to these victims," she said in her opening statement. "
Survivors of the abuse have been the main advocates for justice, working toward this trial for about 15 years. Around 100 are expected to testify during hearings that are likely to last three months.
Human rights and victims groups say Habre promoted members of his Gorane ethnic group to head a ruthless torture and killing apparatus that targeted members of other ethnic groups that threatened his regime.
Habre's government was responsible for an estimated 40,000 deaths, according to a report published in May 1992 by a 10-member truth commission formed by Chad's current President Idriss Deby. The commission particularly blamed Habre's political police force, the Directorate of Documentation and Security, saying it used torture methods.
Habre's easy exile in Senegal was a symbol of impunity in Africa until he was taken into custody and charged in 2013. When in power, Habre had received substantial support from the United States and France because he was seen as a "bulwark" against former Libya dictator Moammar Gadhafi, according to Human Rights Watch.
Associated Press writer Babacar Dione contributed to this report from Dakar.