May 23, 2024

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Chad: Justice Needed for October Crackdown

(Nairobi) – Chad’s transitional government should end its crackdown on opponents and provide redress for the serious human rights violations that were committed around the October 20, 2022 protests, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities have an obligation to conduct prompt, independent, thorough, and transparent criminal investigations into serious human rights violations related to the October 20 crackdown, including killings, deaths in detention, and torture, and hold those found responsible to account. They should free protesters who were imprisoned before and after unfair summary trials held from the end of November to early December, and those still languishing in pretrial detention.

“The violence against protesters was extreme and disproportionate, leaving scores dead and wounded, and hundreds detained without access to lawyers or family,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately ban the use of live ammunition against protesters and invite United Nations experts to carry out independent investigations.”

Since former President Idriss Déby died in April 2021, the transitional government headed by Déby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Déby, has on several occasions violently suppressed protests demanding civilian democratic rule. The government has particularly targeted opposition parties. On October 20, 2022, thousands took to the streets in N’Djamena, the capital, and several other towns in southern Chad, including Moundou, Doba, and Sarh, to protest the current transitional government’s decision to extend the transitional period by two years.

Security forces fired live ammunition at protesters, killing and injuring scores, beat people, chased them into homes, and arrested them, Human Rights Watch found. Relatives and witnesses said that those arrested were held in local police stations, and in at least one school in N’Djamena for several days. Then, hundreds of men and boys were taken to Koro Toro, a high security prison 600 kilometers from N’Djamena designed to house “violent extremists.”

Human Rights Watch researchers visited N’Djamena between November 13 and 21, where they interviewed 68 victims, family members of victims, witnesses, civil society organizations, lawyers, and government officials. Human Rights Watch also met with the country’s deputy prosecutor, the president’s human rights adviser, and with members of the National Human Rights Commission (Commission Nationale des Droits de l’Homme, CNDH) to share preliminary research findings and seek additional information. Human Rights Watch also requested meetings with the ministers of justice and public security, the prime minister, and the president, which were all refused.

In late December and in January, Human Rights Watch spoke with four people, including two children, who had been held in Koro Toro. They said that several people died both on the way to the detention center and at the detention center, that they were often denied food and water, and that children were held in the same cells and rooms as adults for at least the first two weeks. Human Rights Watch has not yet been able to establish how many people may have died in transit and at Koro Toro.

Witnesses, including members of the international community, said protesters were not armed but used slingshots to throw stones at soldiers and set fire to government property. Media reported that protesters attacked police stations and destroyed property. 

The full toll of the violence is still not known. Chadian authorities said 50 people were killed, including around 15 police officers, and 300 injured. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the police officers’ deaths, but human rights groups believe the number of protesters and residents killed could be much higher than the official figures and suspect some people may still be missing.

International standards on the use of force specify that “law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty,” the use of force should be exceptional, and “the use of firearms is considered an extreme measure.”    

By early December, 401 people who had been allegedly caught in the act (flagrant délit) had been put on trial for a range of crimes such as unauthorized gathering, destroying property, arson, and disturbing public order. Between 150 and 200 others still face trials. 

Lawyers have denounced the trials in Koro Toro as unfair and presenting serious logistical problems given that, among other things, the detention center is in a remote location far from the capital. Under Chadian law, authorities may hold detainees for up to 48 hours then must release them or present proof of the need for continued detention. In this case, a prosecutor told Human Rights Watch they have detained people under “preventive detention” which is allowed for up to six months.

Detainees were effectively held incommunicado in Koro Toro as they had no access to family members and lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, for detainees whose whereabouts are still not known, family members and lawyers have requested information from officials to no avail, and they may be considered cases of enforced disappearances. Authorities should publish a list of all detainees from in and around the October 20 protests and release them on bail. If a court rules that there are lawful grounds to justify their continued detention, authorities should transfer them to N’Djamena, where they may access family members or counsel, and participate in transparent public legal proceedings.

Chad’s Constitution and international human rights obligations guarantee all detainees the right of access to a lawyer, family visits, and health care, rights that were not respected in this case. The arbitrary and violent nature of the arrests, lack of transparency of procedures, and inaccessibility of the accused are serious violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international law, children may not be detained except as a matter of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. Children who are detained should be separated from adults, unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so.

In the days following the violence, an investigation commission was announced under the auspices of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), one of eight African Union’s regional economic communities. Civil society leaders and lawyers in N’Djamena told Human Rights Watch they had no confidence that the ECCAS investigation would be independent or effective and advocated technical assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to make the investigation more effective.

On October 22, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) condemned the excessive use of force against protesters and expressed its deep concerns with the events of October 20. Chadian authorities should ensure respect for freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, including by lifting a three-month ban on opposition parties imposed in the wake of the protests, Human Rights Watch said.  

“Chad should choose the path of respect for fundamental human rights, not violent repression, ensuring that opposition party members and protesters can speak out and be heard,” Mudge said. “To do otherwise would not only treat Chad’s international legal obligations with complete contempt, but is a guarantee for more protest, instability, and unrest.”

For additional details, accounts by witnesses, and recommendations for further investigation, please see below.

Increased Repression Leading to the October 20 Protests

The October 20 crackdown came after a sharp increase in repression against protests just before and since Idriss Déby was killed in April 2021. The country’s security forces had increased repression and cracked down on protesters and political opponents in the lead-up to the country’s April 11, 2021 presidential election, using teargas to disperse and injure protesters and human rights activists, and arbitrarily arresting hundreds of opposition party members and supporters, as well as civil society activists, subjecting some to severe beatings and other ill-treatment.

After the 2021 election and Idriss Déby’s death, security forces again used excessive force, including indiscriminate live ammunition, to disperse opposition-led demonstrations across the country. Several protesters were killed, authorities detained activists and opposition party members, and security forces beat journalists covering protests.

Killings, Injuries Related to the Protests on October 20

The protests defied an October 19 government ban on protests. Many of the protesters were either members of the opposition party the Transformers (Les Transformateurs) or were sympathetic to it. Witnesses said that security forces, including members of the presidential guard, police, and armed men in civilian clothes driving unmarked cars, went to areas inhabited by communities known to support political opposition groups, including the Transformers and Wakit Tamma (the time has come, in Chadian Arabic), a coalition of Chadian opposition political parties and civil society organizations. The Transformers’ president, Succès Masra, fled the country shortly after the protests.

In Chagoua and Moursal, two neighborhoods of N’Djamena, researchers found that security forces rounded up men and boys from homes, often in groups, violently breaking down doors, witnesses said. Security officials shot at some of the men.

In one case in Moura, soldiers chased a 23-year-old student, Ndignodji Nodjingar Mathieu, into a bedroom and shot him while he hid under a bed. The soldiers then dragged his body out of the compound and tried to take it with them, but “we all objected so they left the body outside and the family came to take it away,” a witness said. “We found him dead,” another witness said.
In another case, they shot dead 21-year-old Djambaye Emmanuel in the street in front of the house of the president of the National Assembly.

In another case from the same neighborhood, family members said that Blasé Djikossi, 25, was arrested at his home. Though what happened to him is not known, a relative said that he was told Djikossi had died in a truck accident en route to Koro Toro with several others. 

In the Walia area of N’Djamena, a man told researchers that his nephew, Nasingar Urbain, 32, who had a disability, was shot in front of his compound while watching the protests from a distance. “He could not run,” the man said. “He was just watching from a distance and got shot by military from the road.” Urbain died after four days in the hospital, leaving behind a daughter and pregnant wife.

Human Rights Watch recorded two instances of men who were violently detained by the military in the early morning hours of October 21, then died in military custody.  

Theodore Diontilo, 32, was asleep at his home in the Dembe neighborhood between two and three in the morning when the military stormed into the compound where he lived. The men accused Diontilo of being a member of the Transformers and detained him, along with several others. Members of Diontilo’s family searched for him over the course of several days, then found that his body was at a local morgue.

Researchers found that security forces detained men and boys in a primary school in the Abena neighborhood in N’Djamena, subjecting detainees to harsh beatings. One man who was detained at the school said he was tied up with other detainees, four of whom had been badly beaten.

Djide Philomon, 43, was detained at the Abena school for three days, family members said. He was beaten so badly that he was transferred to a military hospital in N’Djamena. Family members who managed to visit him said his body was swollen and he had difficulty moving and speaking. Visitors last saw him at the hospital on November 4, but the next day he was dead. His death certificate said he died of a heart attack after being “traumatized by torture after the protests on October 20, 2022.”

Soldiers also beat bystanders. On October 21 at about 6 p.m., after a curfew went into effect, soldiers intercepted a 60-year-old man while he was buying airtime for his phone in the Atron neighborhood and beat him so badly with the butt of a gun that he lost his left eye.

“Two Toyota pick-ups accelerated toward me then stopped,” he said. “Something told me not to run. The soldiers got out and beat me with the butt of the gun in my face. I fell on the ground, bleeding. Now I cannot do anything. I am just at home.”

Arbitrary Arrests, Detentions

The UN estimated that over 1,400 people were detained during the crackdown in various locations across the country. In November officials announced that 621 people were at Koro Toro, including 83 children, without releasing a list.  

A month later, many family members of those arrested or missing said they still had no information about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Others had received calls from the International Committee of the Red Cross or letters from the detainees confirming they were at Koro Toro. 

Of the 401 people who were tried in summary trials on December 2, 59 were acquitted, 262 were sentenced to between two and three years in prison, and 80 were given suspended jail terms of one to two years, according to media reports. On December 18, 139 of those convicted were transferred to N’Djamena and, according to local media, were released. The 83 children held at Koro Toro have been transferred to N’Djamena for trials before a juvenile judge, lawyers who are following cases of people in Koro Toro said.

The four people Human Rights Watch interviewed about Koro Toro said they had been released on December 18. They said they saw several people die in the open trucks that took them to Koro Toro as they were packed tightly and there was no food or water over the course of the three-day journey. “When someone died in the truck, the soldiers told us to throw the body out,” one former detainee said.

Other former detainees said that several people died at Koro Toro from lack of food and water or because of other health ailments. An independent investigation will be crucial to establish how many people died in transit or at Koro Toro, Human Rights Watch said.

Another 150 to 200 detainees in Koro Toro are awaiting criminal charges on what are believed to be more serious crimes. Not all the names of those facing criminal charges have been published, leaving some family members confused as to the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed family members of dozens of men and boys who were detained in various locations around N’Djamena.

A 70-year-old man who lives near the Abena primary school said, “On the 21, at 5 a.m., soldiers came to my house and opened the door. They saw me and said, ‘You are old, where are your kids?’ … They found my three kids and took them straight from my house to the school.”

In some cases, the security forces carried out mass arrests of people in the same residential compound. In Chagoua, in N’Djamena’s seventh arrondissement, security forces arrested 16 men from one compound just after midnight on October 21. Family members said the soldiers just started breaking down doors and arresting men and boys. In late November, one was confirmed to be held in a police station in N’Djamena, three were confirmed to be held at Koro Toro, and five were later confirmed to have been summarily tried in Koro Toro.

In Moursal, in the sixth arrondissement, security forces blocked off an area and went house to house to arrest men and boys. “They pulled the men out of the bedrooms by force and took them away,” said a witness who described the arrest of three men inside her compound. Her neighbor described a similarly violent arrest of six men and boys from her compound: “They broke down the door and picked one boy from the toilet before coming into the house to arrest the others.”

Another neighbor, a 70-year-old man, described the arrest of his brother, Nanimian Ezechiel, 57, and four other family members from his compound. A nephew who managed to escape said, “To our surprise the military came in by force. […] They knocked the door down. We were all rounded up. They took Ezechiel and two of my cousins into the car and came back for us. I was saved by a neighbor who hid me in the confusion.”

Another man in the same area said that his cousin, 32-year-old Abba Hassane Tagahm, was arrested outside his front door. A man from the Adala neighborhood said that soldiers arrested him in front of his home while he was talking to a neighbor. They forced him into their truck, forced him and two other detainees to clear roadblocks, then released them.

“I still have beating marks on my back and arms,” he said.

Detention and Abuse at the Abena Primary School

Late on October 19, witnesses said, security forces began rounding up men and boys in Abena district, detaining them in local police stations. “At 10 p.m., the police and army were already near the Transformers Headquarters [in Abena] and using teargas,” one resident said. “They started to arrest youth in front of their houses to prevent them from protesting.”

On October 20, as the protests waned, security forces began using the primary school as a detention center for at least four days, holding dozens of men, and possibly boys, in small classrooms, researchers found. Witnesses said they were afraid to leave their homes to investigate but they could hear the screams of detainees, and believed they were beaten.

Human Rights Watch researchers saw the buildings that were used by security forces to detain men and possibly boys. One man who lives near the school and was there as the men were detained said, “All [night long] we heard them beaten. We could not hear what they were saying, just the screams.”

Another man who lives near the school said, “On the 20th there were shots [coming from the school]. The classes were transformed into jails. They used two buildings. The screams were horrible. I could hear the screams all night. They were screams of pain.”

A 29-year-old man who was detained at the school for 24 hours said:

“I live just near the school. On the 21, we were in the house. At around 1p.m. […] more than 10 soldiers broke down the door [of our compound]. My brother and I were taken to the school. I was taken to the smaller building and put in a classroom with 23 other men and boys. We had to urinate and defecate inside. If you asked for anything you were beaten. […] One guy there, he was [a member of the Transformers] was beaten badly. Soldiers put a plastic bag put around his head, he didn’t die, but he defecated himself. They [also] brought in four people and really beat them. Three of them were arrested at Yaya Diallo’s [a political opponent] office.”

A 22-year-old man who was also detained at the school said he also saw beatings and was told by an officer, “We can kill all of you in this class, but it would only be a waste of bullets.”

An official from the CNDH confirmed that it also had information that the school was used as a detention center.

Need for a Credible, Independent Investigation and Criminal Accountability

Chadian authorities have made little or no progress investigating the alleged human rights violations. Several initiatives by civil society activists and lawyers’ groups to collect victims’ complaints are underway, but the efforts may be hampered by authorities’ inability to prosecute those responsible for the abuses.

Due to the serious nature of the crimes committed by Chad’s security forces on October 20 and on the days that followed, there should be a strong response from the international community.
Representatives from the ACHPR Working Group on Death Penalty, Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Africa and from its Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa should request visits to Chad to conduct investigations with an eye toward public reporting.  

The AU and the UN human rights office should work with the government to ensure there is a credible independent investigation that complies with international standards and  has sufficient resources to carry out its work promptly and that it publishes its results in a timely manner. Such an investigation could be carried out by or with the assistance of one of the UN human rights bodies who have the technical expertise on independent investigations that comply with international law.

The AU, the European Union, and UN should also strongly urge Chadian authorities to ensure that prompt, independent, fair, and open criminal investigations take place into all crimes committed and any potential cover-up, leading to the fair and effective prosecution of those allegedly responsible in accordance with international standards, including protesters who may have attacked security forces and those from the security forces who gave orders or who are liable under command responsibility.