Why the Habre trial delay pains victims’ kin

Hissene Habre, the former Chadian dictator now on the dock in Dakar, is celebrating a victory of sorts after the judges at the African Union-backed court adjourned his landmark trial to September 7.
Habre threw his hand in the air and waved a victory sign for the 45-day reprieve (from July 21) as he was carted away to his prison cell while the families of his victims who crowded the courtroom wept.
For the victims’ families, an early guilty verdict was what they were praying for.
Habre’s team are up to some strategy, which is to seek to undermine the court’s legitimacy. After noisily boycotting the first day of the trial, the defendant and his lawyers seemed to have scored a tactical victory by prompting a postponement.
The 45 days’ breather will give the accused time to concoct another strategy with a new battery of defence lawyers.
Three experienced lawyers were designated by the court to replace the initial team that has vowed to stay out of the case.
The families of the victims see the adjournment as taking them hostage and increasing their pain, anguish and frustration. To them, the delay looks even longer than the 15 years of sustained legal battle they waged to have the man brought to trial.
Analysts concur that the new defence lawyers could possibly succeed in crafting another strategy that will help the former dictator to buy time with more adjournments beyond September 7.
Any jail term
Some opined that another reason for the former dictator’s early celebration could be that he expects any jail term to be reduced considerably through the ingenuity of the new defence team.
But the bottom line is that few experts seriously doubt that at the end of it all, Habre will follow straight into the footsteps of the former Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, who was jailed for war crimes by a Special Court backed by the UN.
“There is no way Hissene Habré will get away with the heinous crimes he has committed against our people,” a confident Chadian witness called Mahmet Mbaré told the Africa Review.
If found guilty, Habre could face up to 30 years in jail, most likely behind the solid walls of the maximum security Camp Manuel prison in Dakar.
The abode was recently refurbished with him in mind, but he has lately been sharing it with one of Senegal’s popular musicians, Thione Seck, who is being held there in “preventive custody”.
The mbalax musician is awaiting trial on a charge of possessing over $1 million in fake CFA francs, dollars and euro bills.
Like Taylor, Habre stands accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture as well as the assassination or disappearance of some 40,000 opponents during the time he ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990.
The deposed leader has been having problems with his previous defence team. Recently he sacked one of the lawyers, the popular Senegalese lawmaker Elhaj Diouf, for holding “unauthorised” meetings with Chadian President Idriss Deby.
Glowing tribute
President Deby seized power from Habre in a military putsch and had consented to be a witness against the former dictator in the ongoing trial.
In the 17 months since the preliminary hearings began, the special court had heard harrowing testimonies from thousands of victims and their relatives who survived Habre’s reign of terror.
Many of them made the journey to Senegal with the photographs of their slain relatives. Some also came with photographs of the infamous swimming pool in N’Djamena that was built by the French colonial government, but later turned into a dungeon by Habre.
Back home in Chad and in N’Djamena in particular, thousands have religiously followed live radio and television broadcasts of the trial via Senegal’s national radio and television (RTS).
Following the two-day opening of the trial, the chairperson of the association of Chadian victims, Noyama Kovounsouna, paid glowing tribute to the fallen heroes who began the long road to the arrest and trial of Habre.
He paid a special tribute to the prosecutor of the AU-backed court, Mr Mbacke Fall, who has made several trips to Chad and visited mass graves and sites of torture and listened to heart-rending testimonies.
“If there is justice or something like a judgment worthy of the name, then other dictators who are still in power will be scared [by the trial] and the lesson from the trial would be worth something,” Mr Souleymane Kemgue Maradas, one of Habre’s victims, told a French radio station shortly after the trial was adjourned on July 21.