Landmark trial of Chadian dictator Habre adjourned

Former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre was forcibly brought to court on earlier this week on the second day of his landmark trial in Senegal, but judges adjourned the case until September to enable appointed lawyers to prepare his defence, Agence Press France (AFP) reports.
Habre, once dubbed ‘Africa’s Pinochet’, is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture during his blood-soaked reign, but has refused to recognise what he brands an illegitimate tribunal.
The trial, the first time a despot from one African country has been called to account in another, opened on July 20, a quarter of a century after his 1982-90 rule came to an end.
Prison guards brought Habre, dressed in a white robe and turban, into the special court in the Senegalese capital Dakar for the second day.
But the 72-year-old refused to speak.
The court appointed three attorneys to defend him after he refused legal representation.
One of the three court-appointed defence lawyers, Mbaye Sene, said that he would ‘carry out (his) mission according to the rule book.’
‘We’re going to get to work straight away to ensure the best possible defence,’ he said.
The court, known as the Extraordinary African Chambers, then adjourned the trial until September 7 to give the lawyers time to prepare their defence.
At the news, Habre rose and gave a clenched-fist salute and V-for-victory sign to his supporters, who shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is greatest).
Habre — backed during his presidency by France and the US as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi — is on trial over actions under his regime from 1982 until he was ousted in 1990. Rights groups say 40,000 Chadians were killed under a regime of brutal repression of opponents and rival ethnic groups Habre perceived as a threat to his grip on the Sahel nation.
He risks a sentence of at least 30 years in prison.
Presiding Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam said the appointed lawyers had a duty to ‘safeguard the interests of Hissene Habre, even against his wishes.’
‘We want a fair trial,’ he added.
But the delay raised concerns among those representing civil parties in the case, with French lawyer William Bourdon warning that it could enable Habre to ‘sabotage and paralyse’ the trial.
Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch said victims were dismayed by the adjournment but that it was only a small setback in the 25-year fight for justice.
‘The victims are of course very disappointed in the adjournment but they have been fighting to bring this case to court for 25 years, and 45 more days will not change anything in their long march towards justice,’ said Brody, who has been working with Habre’s victims since 1999.
‘Although Hissene Habre’s government sent thousands of people to prison without a trial or even a lawyer, it is only proper for a trial held in the name of justice that Habre himself be defended as best as possible.’
Habre’s personal lawyer, Francois Serres, dismissed the appointment of the lawyers and the adjournment as merely an effort by the court to try to ‘lend credibility to the judicial system.’
Security was tightened for the hearing after some rowdy Habre supporters chanted slogans condemning the court before being removed.
Habre was overthrown by rebel troops in Chad in December 1990 and fled to Senegal, where he was arrested in June 2013 and has since been in custody.
Delayed for years, the trial sets a historic precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have all been tried in international courts.
Many Africans distrust the International Criminal Court in the Hague, accusing it of chiefly targeting Africans for prosecution.
‘This is Africa judging Africa,’ Senegalese justice minister Sikidi Kaba said of Habre’s case.
The Extraordinary African Chambers — set up under an agreement between Dakar and the African Union — indicted Habre in July 2013 and investigators spent 19 months interviewing some 2,500 witnesses.
About 100 witnesses are expected to testify during the trial, out of some 4,000 people who have been registered as victims in the case.
The US has welcomed the start of the trial as ‘an important step toward justice’ for those who suffered under Habre’s rule.

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