DAKAR (Reuters) - The trial of Chad’s former ruler Hissene Habre for thousands of killings during his 1982-1990 rule was suspended on Tuesday until September after the court named new lawyers because his defense team shunned the session.
Habre, who has refused to recognize the African Union-backed tribunal trying him in Senegal, had to be forced to appear at the second day of the trial, billed as a test case for Africa’s legal institutions.
The proceedings cap a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a coup in his central African nation.
Habre, who faces charges of war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity, could face a maximum of life in prison.
The session was suspended after a few minutes on Tuesday when his lawyers did not show and the presiding judge appointed three lawyers to represent him. The new lawyers were given 45 days to prepare and the trial is due to resume on September 7.
“The victims have been fighting for 25 years. They don’t want to, but they can wait 45 days,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who has been pursuing the case since 1999.
When the victims first brought their case in Senegal in 2000, courts ruled they did not have the authority to try crimes committed in Chad. The African Union later refused to extradite Habre to face trial in Belgium and asked Senegal to pass legislation giving its courts jurisdiction for foreign crimes.
It was not until President Macky Sall took office in Senegal in 2012 that the process picked up speed, with the creation of the Extraordinary African Tribunal (CAE) a year later.
A successful trial, conducted to high standards and leading to a credible verdict, would strengthen African countries’ argument that they should try their own, amid criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for indicting only Africans.
The tribunal is supported by the African Union but is part of Senegal’s justice system, making it the first time in modern history that one country’s domestic courts have prosecuted the former leader of another country on rights charges. Other such cases have been tried by international tribunals.
The first day of the trial had been suspended after Habre, 72, started shouting slogans against the court and had to be forcibly removed. A handful of his supporters were also ejected from the courtroom.
On Tuesday, Habre sat alone and silent in front of the panel of judges, dressed in a white robe and matching turban and clutching prayer beads, surrounded by eight security personnel.
When leaving the court he pumped his fist in the air. His supporters shouted “courage” and “Mandela”, in reference to the hero of apartheid-era South Africa.
William Bourdon, a lawyer for the victims, said Habre’s refusal to cooperate with the court meant he had effectively taken the proceeding hostages. “He is spitting on the Extraordinary African Chambers,” Bourdon said.
The case against Habre turns on whether he personally ordered the killing and torture of thousands of political opponents and ethnic rivals. A Truth Commission in Chad found evidence of nearly 4,000 killings and estimated the total could be 10-times higher.
An investigation by Human Rights Watch in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandoned DDS headquarters updating Habre on the status of detainees. A court handwriting expert confirmed margin notes on one document to be Habre’s.
Brody said Habre was seeking to exploit the limited resources of the court, which has a budget of 8.6 million euros. “A delay for 45 days in a trial that was only supposed to last 90 days is going to increase the budget by almost 50 percent,” Brody said.
Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Tom Heneghan