DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – There were no windows at Camp Martyr, the Chadian prison where dictator Hissene Habre locked up dissenters. Just eight dark cells, reeking of sweat and urine, where hundreds of men were crammed together, awaiting torture and execution.
Men were beaten. Some were tortured with electric shocks to their chests or genitals. Others had tubes shoved down their throats and their stomachs pumped full of water, said Abdourahmane Gueye, a former prisoner who had been accused of being a spy.
During Habre’s rule in the 1980s, his secret police, known as the DDS, were responsible for political killings, systematic torture, thousands of arbitrary arrests and the targeting of particular ethnic groups, according to Human Right Watch.
More than two decades on, Gueye and thousands of other victims of Habre’s rule are on the brink of seeing justice. Habre was arrested last year in Senegal, where he had been living freely in exile for 22 years. He became the first African former head of state to be charged with crimes against humanity by another African state.
But an unexpected decision last month by the Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE), the special court set up to try Habre, to extend the initial 27-month trial by just over a year has come as a blow to victims, already frustrated by years of delay.
Marcel Mendy, spokesman for the CAE, said the 13-month extension would allow the judges to gather the evidence required to try Habre, but it could take longer.
"We need time to collect testimonies from witnesses, to find the five others charged alongside Habre and bring them to Dakar, to analyse the DDS archives, to exhume the bodies and analyse the bones," said Mendy, adding that the trial judges were on a fourth research mission to Chad this week.
Gueye, 68, a Senegalese national whose friend died in Camp Martyr said: “I’m disappointed with the extension of the trial. I waited over 20 years to look him [Habre] in the eye and tell the court what he did to me and all those other men, many of them innocent.”
Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch, who has worked with Habre’s victims for more than a decade, said there might be practical repercussions of the extension too.
"In Chad, the average life expectancy is 56 years and these crimes took place 23 years ago. Since we started, two out of the seven key witnesses that came to give their testimonies have already died," Brody said. Habre himself is now a frail 71-year-old.
BODY OF EVIDENCE
Habre is charged with crimes against humanity, torture and “barbaric acts”. The charges date from 1982 when he seized power in a coup, to 1990 when he was ousted.
Rights groups and donors were baffled by the court’s request for extension and said most of the legal legwork had already been done by Belgium, which has been seeking Habre’s extradition from Senegal since 2005.
A 1993 Belgium law allowed a national court to try anyone for crimes against humanity regardless of their nationality or where the crimes took place. Belgian citizens were among Habre’s victims.
"Between 2001 and 2005, Belgian judges gathered a substantial body of evidence to build a strong case against Habre," a diplomat privy to the trial procedures, who didn’t want to be named, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"However, we don’t have access to the legal dossier. So if the judges say they need more time to collect testimonies and evidence, or they need to organise a fourth research mission to Chad, we cannot say no," said the diplomat, reflecting the view of many of the donors funding the trial.
The trial budget, seen by Thomson Reuters Foundation, shows the CAE will pay for the extension. The additional costs of judges’ salaries, travel expenses and exhumations will be covered by cutting spending on communicating the work of the court to victims back in Chad and axing financial support for poor victims seeking justice.
The budget is 8 million euros ($11 million). Other major war crimes tribunals, trying multiple defendants, have cost much more. The former Yugoslavia tribunal currently spends around $140 million per year, whilst the Sierra Leone and Rwanda tribunals have each spent over $100 million per year.
An international legal expert said: “Whether you’re in The Hague or Dakar, if you pay judges more than the average salary of a normal judge in their country, then there’s a risk they may take longer than they actually need.”
After his long wait, Gueye remains optimistic: “I truly hope that Hissene Habre has a long and healthy life… so that we can have justice and he can serve his time in prison.”