Human rights activists in Chad are reacting with a mix of guarded optimism and outright suspicion to a government pledge to oust holdovers from what one victim of political violence called the “dark years” of former president Hissene Habre.
Some activists say the declaration - in a recent letter from the Chadian prime minister to Human Rights Watch (HRW) - means nothing unless followed up with concrete steps to bring suspected torturers to justice.
Human rights and victims’ groups in Chad have been calling for the sacking, arrest and conviction of Habre-era officials since a 1992 truth commission accused the former administration of some 40,000 cases of political killings and torture.
Habre was president from 1982 to 1990, when he was toppled in a coup by the current president, Idriss Deby.
In an 18 August letter to New York-based HRW, Prime Minister Pascal Yoadimnadji said former members of Habre’s notorious security forces “will be removed from their positions awaiting their trial. The procedure is underway.”
The prime minister also promised that the government will take up legislation - formally proposed earlier this year by a Chadian victims’ association - to compensate torture victims and their families.
“The bill on reparations for torture victims and their heirs will be put on the agenda on the National Assembly as soon as possible,” the letter said.
HRW has been working with Chadian torture victims for years, calling for offenders to be brought to trial and victims and their families to be compensated. The group put out a report in July, naming 41 Habre-era figures - many suspected of torture and murder - who hold key posts in the Deby government.
Earlier this month the Chadian government dismissed six of the 41. But the sackings were done quietly, by internal decree. Activists say the prime minister’s recent letter is reassuring.
“They’re making clear that this is a policy,” Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch said on Thursday by phone from New York.
“This will mean getting some of the worst torturers in the country out of government,” he said. “It should have been done a long time ago but it’s great that they’re doing it now. You have to give credit where credit is due.”
But he said the government must compensate victims and prosecute those responsible, in order “to close the book on the Habre era.”
Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer for torture victims in Chad, said the government’s recent move is important but she condemned authorities for thus far failing to bring the accused before a judge.
“I see it as a victory for victims - but only a very first victory, and long overdue,” she said.
Moudeina still has shrapnel in her body from a grenade attack in 2001 when she took part in a sit-in to protest Deby’s second presidential election victory. A top official from the Habre regime allegedly ordered the attack.
Moudeina said that despite Deby's promises of democracy and reform, nothing has changed since the 1980s with respect to liberty and human rights.
“We are not yet past the dark years of Habre,” she said.
Other activists remain skeptical about the Deby government’s commitment to justice.
“In ousting these officials from their posts, the government wanted simply to hide Chad’s real socio-economic problems - strikes, tribal conflicts, insecurity. I am very skeptical of whether the government truly has the will to bring these officials to justice,” Dobian Assingar, president of a coalition of human rights and press groups in Chad, told IRIN.
Human rights activists in Chad are asking themselves why the government is taking these actions now, after so many years.
“Better late than never,” a government official who asked not to be named told IRIN on Thursday.
He said the government’s recent moves are in response to the truth commission recommendations and calls by human rights groups.
“These are steps that have been foreseen for a long time,” he said. “Better to do something, even if late, than to do nothing and let impunity persist.”