One hundred and eighty-seven pages. Over two days, the clerks of the Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar read out line after line of the long indictment of Hissène Habré. As I sat there, with a group of survivors, listening to the charges which included descriptions of the former Chadian president’s jails, the forms of torture, the villages destroyed - my mind drifted back to the 16 years of work it had taken us to get to this day.
Although Habré was indicted in Senegal (where he lives) in February 1990, just eight months after I began working with the victims, the prosecution was soon derailed by the then new president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, whose rank interference was condemned by UN rights monitors but set us off on what became referred to as a “political and legal soap opera.” Over the next 12 years, the case would be brought to the Belgian courts, the United Nations Committee against Torture, the African Union, the Court of Justice of the Community of West African States (Ecowas) and finally the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. It was only in 2012 when Macky Sall defeated Abdoulaye Wade in the Senegalese presidential elections and the ICJ (on my birthday) ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habré that things finally turned around.
During all those years, few people gave us a chance to succeed: heads of state hardly ever get prosecuted for their crimes, particularly in Africa. As I trudged with the survivors to summits of the African Union, diplomatic meetings and encounters with Senegalese officials, it often seemed like a fool’s errand, but we trudged on...
I made some 35 visits to Senegal, maybe 20 to Chad, and I even moved to Belgium in part to be closer to the case when it was in a Brussels court . We met both Abdoulaye Wade and Chadian president Idriss Déby four times. Looking at the photos hanging in the waiting room of the Senegalese minister of justice, I realized I had met with the last 10 ministers, all of whom until Macky Sall was elected had no desire to see me. (“That guy is just obsessed,” a Wade holdover told Aminata Touré, Sall’s first justice minister who would become a driving force behind the case.)
But the obsession paid off.
The opening of the trial in July - also on my birthday - was a celebration. Then the case was adjourned for 45 days in July following Habré’s outburst and the court appointment of new lawyers, and we once again had to be patient. What would happen when the case resumed? What new tricks did Habré have up his sleeve? We knew he would try again to create a ruckus, that he would try to remove his court-appointed lawyers and bring us back to square one. Would the court stand firm?
It did. The court made it clear that it was time to get down to business. Habré can make all the noise all he wants, but he doesn’t get to decide whether he should be tried, or if the victims get justice.
As the victims’ lead lawyer and my close professional partner Jacqueline Moudeina said after the reading of the charges was over, “Now the trial has really begun. Nothing can stop the course of justice now.”