Witness: Detainees of a maximum security prison in the desert of Chad “only think of death”

Witness: Detainees of a maximum security prison in the desert of Chad “only think of death”
Witness: Detainees of a maximum security prison in the desert of Chad “only think of death”
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In the Koro Toro prison, which is heavily guarded in the middle of the Djourab desert in Chad, “prisoners no longer think of anything but death,” according to Nadjelim, who survived an arrest during which 621 demonstrators from N’Djamena were placed in this prison.

Nadjelim (not his real name) is one of those who fled the harrowing journey that took more than 600 young Chadians, including 83 minors, from a demonstration in N’Djamena that was bloodily suppressed by the authorities, to a prison located in one of the most desolate parts of the Sahara.

At first, they were guarded by jihadist detainees, according to the testimonies of some, then they were tried in a mass trial, without lawyers or independent media, after a month and a half of detention.

On October 20, 2022, about 50 people, according to the government, most of them young men, were shot and killed by security forces in the capital, during a protest against the transitional president, Mohamed Idriss Deby Itno, remaining in power for two more years.

Exiled opposition leaders and local and international NGOs denounced “preventive arrests” on the eve of the demonstration, followed by other arrests a few days later. They also spoke of “extrajudicial executions” and “torture”.

On that day, which is considered one of the deadliest days in the contemporary history of Chad, 621 people were arrested, according to the government, and taken to Koro Toro prison, which consisted mainly of barracks surrounded by a high fence. The prison appears as a small dot on satellite images surrounded by sand dunes in central Chad.

Drink urine to survive

Dieudonné (pseudonym), 34, says he was returning from a construction site in N’Djamena on the eve of the demonstration. At around 21:00, soldiers picked him up with other men and took him to a wasteland. He tells AFP his story, like others who have returned from Koro Toro, in a secret location on condition of anonymity. “They started to beat us,” he says, his voice trembling with terror. “The commander ordered his men to beat me. They tied a rope around my neck, and I heard one of them say, ‘Kill him (in Arabic)’.”

Louis Madge, director of the Central Africa region at Human Rights Watch, confirms that his organization “documented several cases of men who were arrested simply because they were in the wrong neighborhoods, and then they were taken to Koro Toro.”

Koro Toro prison is 600 kilometers from the capital, N’Djamena – the equivalent of two days of continuous driving. The prisoners were far from their lawyers and families, who did not receive any news of the prisoners for a month and a half. Some parents confirmed to AFP that they do not know if their children are still alive.

The journey from N’Djamena to Koro Toro saw some of the detainees die, along the windswept paths winding through the dunes of Djourab.

“We were piled on top of each other in the truck,” says Nadjelim near a church in N’Djamena, with Yves (a pseudonym), who also escaped from detention, next to him.

“We didn’t get anything to drink or eat,” Yves, 28, wearing dark glasses, says. “We asked to be allowed to drink from the small lakes, but they refused. Some people drank urine to survive.”

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“Guantanamo of Chad”

For his part, Nadjelim continued, “We were piling the corpses on top of each other. Some of them started to decompose, so the guards threw them out of the truck.” He mentions how some “managed to escape by jumping out of the truck,” adding, “Some were lucky and some were shot.”

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“We hear that bodies have been dumped on the road and that several people may have died in the detention centre. We are working to confirm that,” said Louis Madge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

At the end of October, the World Organization Against Torture reported that more than 2,000 people had been arrested in N’Djamena, but on November 11, the government only approved the arrest of 621 people, “including 83 minors,” who were all transferred to Koro Toro.

Koro Toro Prison was built in 1996, far from all populated areas, and holds between 500 and 600 prisoners. Among the detainees are prisoners convicted of “terrorism”, rebels and suspected jihadists with Boko Haram and with the Islamic State organization very active in the Lake Chad region. Therefore, it is known as the “Guantanamo of Chad”.

“No prisoner can escape from it, on pain of death from thirst,” says a former justice minister who asked not to be identified.

Jihadi guards

“We were 40 or 50 prisoners in each cell,” Yves says. “We were entrusted to jihadists who were the guards in our cell. They beat us with iron bars.” For his part, Nadjelim continues, “They chose Boko Haram detainees to torture us,” adding, “We only thought about death.”

Lewis Madge points out that “there are serious and reliable accounts of torture in Koro Toro, some of which led to death.”

On December 11, 401 detainees, among the more than 600 protesters who took Coro Toro into custody, were tried in a prison trial in the absence of lawyers. The minors were then returned to N’Djamena, where they are still awaiting appearance before a juvenile judge.

During the four-day trial, 262 detainees were sentenced to between two and three years in prison for “violence” and “disturbing public order”. Of the 139 released, 80 will remain on probation for a year or two, and 59, like Nadjelim and Eve, will simply be released.

“They were arrested in illegal conditions, held in almost inhumane conditions and tried according to illegal procedures,” said Frédéric Daignonne, coordinator of the detainees’ lawyer group.

Neither the Chadian government spokesman nor the Ministry of Justice responded to numerous questions from Agence France-Presse on these accusations.

On April 20, 2021, when the death of Marshal Déby was announced, the army appointed his son, Mohamed Déby, then 37, as president at the head of a military council of 15 generals, for a transitional period of 18 months, at the end of which he promised to return power to civilians. through “free and democratic elections”.

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