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For The First Time, An African Country Prosecutes Another's Ex-Leader

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Former leader of Chad is going on trial Monday on charges of crimes against humanity. He's been living in exile in Senegal since he was driven from power in 1990. Human rights campaigners and survivors of alleged torture have been trying to get him to court ever since. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Hissene Habre ruled Chad for eight years, from 1982 until his ouster. The Sahara Desert nation was roiled in conflict during the Cold War. And back then, the CIA was widely reported to have kept Habre in power because Chad was seen as a bulwark against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

REED BRODY: The U.S. and France helped him throughout his rule even as he turned his country into a police state.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. For the past 16 years, Brody, a lawyer, has been working with survivors of Habre's alleged torture chambers in Chad. They've been trying to bring the 72-year-old to trial on charges of ordering the killings and torture of thousands of people. Brody says the former ruler's political police force was responsible for some of the worst atrocities against his supposed opponents.

BRODY: This is the first case - an important test case - to see if an African court can have a fair trial, can do justice by African victims.

QUIST-ARCTON: Hissene Habre lived in exile in Senegal's capital, Dakar, keeping a low profile and, say his accusers, enjoying immunity. Backed by the African Union, Senegal eventually agreed to host a specially commissioned court, setting the scene for the Habre trial, the first time one African country has been given jurisdiction to prosecute a former leader of another country.

SOULEYMANE GUENGUENG: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: "The decision to try Habre came as such a relief," says Souleymane Guengueng, who survived Hissene Habre's prisons and cofounded Chad's Victims Support Group.

GUENGUENG: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Guengueng says he can't forget witnessing other people being tortured in prison. Alleged tactics included squirting gas into the eyes of detainees. Another former prisoner, Fatima Mando, told Human Rights Watch...

FATIMA MANDO: (Through interpreter) If I could ask him, what did I do to him? - what did we, poor women, do to be hurt like this? He beat us. He hurt us. He killed our husbands.

QUIST-ARCTON: Habre has long denied any knowledge of torture or killings under his watch. But former prisoner Souleymane Guengueng says his trial and charges of alleged crimes against humanity should be a warning to other African leaders.

GUENGUENG: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Guengueng says if leaders are accused of ordering torture and murder, the law will catch up with them. I'm Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.