February 1, 2023

Massive crackdown on opposition supporters in Chad following President Idriss Déby’s unexpected death

Protesters burning car tires in the streets of Chad’s capital N’Djamena on April 27
Protesters burning car tires in the streets of Chad’s capital N’Djamena on April 27

Security forces in Chad have used excessive force, including indiscriminate live ammunition, to disperse opposition-led demonstrations across the country in the aftermath of the April 11 election, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

During protests in late April and May, at least seven people were killed, dozens were wounded, and security forces arrested more than 700 people, several of whom reported ill-treatment, including torture, in detention.

Tensions have been high in Chad since President Idriss Déby’s unexpected death, reportedly from injuries during clashes between rebels and government forces in the Western Kanem province. The army announced his death on April 20, the day after his reelection to a sixth term in an election the opposition largely boycotted due to widespread violence and repression. A transitional military council led by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, Déby’s son, took over the country on April 20, but the council is facing both national and international criticism amid growing calls for a civilian-led transition and credible elections.

“Chad’s brutal repression of opponents, dissidents, and other residents is likely to push the country toward further instability,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately stop security force abuses and hold those who have used excessive force against peaceful protesters accountable.”

Hundreds of members and supporters of opposition parties and civil society organizations united under a coalition known as Wakit Tama, “the time has come” in Chadian Arabic, and other residents demonstrated in N’Djamena, the capital, as well as in Moundou, Doba, and other cities across the country, on April 27 and 28May 8, and May 19. The protesters challenged a transitional military council ban on demonstrations and demanded a transition to civilian rule. They also agitated against France’s initial support for the military takeover and its perceived interference in Chadian political affairs.

Transitional military authorities on April 28 said that six people died during the April 27 demonstrations, without specifying the locations or circumstances. Civil society groups stated that 15 people died and 36 were injured during the April 27 and 28 protests across Chad.

Based on telephone interviews with 45 people between April 29 and May 27, including six protesters and bystanders wounded by security forces during the demonstrations, Human Rights Watch documented seven deaths, including six men killed in N’Djamena and one in Moundou, and seven people injured in N’Djamena and Doba. Interviewees included seven formerly detained protesters and 20 other witnesses to abuses and relatives of victims as well as 12 medical workers, journalists, members of opposition parties, and civil society representatives. Human Rights Watch corroborated victim and witness accounts with medical records, official statements by the transitional military council, photographs, and video.

On June 11 Human Rights Watch shared its findings and requested responses to specific questions in an email to Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, the justice minister. He did not reply.

Witnesses and family members said that security forces, including the police and soldiers, were largely responsible for the killings and injuries. In two cases, victims were killed by unidentified armed men in civilian clothes who arrived at the protests around the same time as the security forces, in unmarked vehicles, and who fired at civilians in the presence of uniformed security forces members, who did not intervene.

Security forces and other authorities also arrested, threatened, and intimidated witnesses and protesters, including victims who were being treated at health facilities.

Police shot and killed Adouksouma Balama Mathieu, a 26-year-old student who participated in the April 27 demonstrations in N’Djamena’s Walia neighborhood. “Police fired teargas and warning shots in the air but failed to disperse us,” said a witness. “We burned tires and threw rocks at them. Then they fired live rounds at some 20 to 30 meters from us. Balama got a bullet in the thigh, but police kept firing.” Human Rights Watch confirmed the circumstances of Balama’s killing with another witness and a family member.

Some protesters attacked security forces and damaged public and private property. In an April 28 statement, the transitional military authorities reported that demonstrators had killed a female police officer and destroyed 15 security force vehicles and two gas stations in N’Djamena on April 27. Human Rights Watch also learned that a crowd of protesters severely beat a gendarme on April 27 in Moundou.

According to N’Djamena’s prosecutormedia reports, and the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, security forces arrested more than 700 people in relation to the April 27 and 28 demonstrations. Members of Chadian human rights groups and lawyers informed Human Rights Watch that most of them have been released, but at least 10 remained detained at the N’Djamena central prison as of June 23, including on charges of destruction of public and private property, public disturbance, illegal demonstration, and violence.

Human Rights Watch estimated that security forces beat more than 50 people who had been arrested before transferring them to various police stations, based on accounts from lawyers and members of human rights groups who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

On May 5 the newly appointed justice minister Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo told Radio France Internationale that the prosecutor should open an investigation into the arrests, deaths, and injuries of protesters during the April 27 and 28 demonstrations. The minister added that the judicial authorities should promptly deal with these cases and immediately release detainees if there are no charges against them.

Regional and international actors have condemned Chadian security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters and called for accountability for abuses. They include the French President Emmanuel Macron and the Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in an April 27 joint statement, the African Union’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders on April 29, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 30, and the European Parliament on May 19.

International law, African human rights law, and Chad’s transitional charter protect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly and prohibit excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that security forces may use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and that the intentional use of lethal force is permitted only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

“Authorities should immediately end security force abuses and allow for peaceful protests as part of the democratic process,” Sawyer said. “Those now in office, with support from regional and international partners, should ensure a swift and peaceful transition to civilian rule, and allow for the organization of credible, free, and fair elections.”

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