The United Nations Committee against Torture has called on Senegal not to allow Chad's exiled former president, Hissène Habré, to leave the country.

In February 2000, Hissene Habre was indicted on torture charges, but Senegal's highest court ruled last month that Habre could not stand trial because his alleged crimes were not committed in Senegal. Habre's victims immediately announced that they would seek Habre's extradition to Belgium, where a criminal investigation against Habre is also underway. The victims also filed a petition with the U.N. Committee against Torture, urging that Senegal be requested to prosecute or extradite Habre as required by the U.N. Torture Convention.

On April 7, however, Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade announced that he had asked Habre to leave Senegal. The victims feared that Habre would move to a country out of reach of an extradition request or a final U.N. ruling and asked the Committee to issue an interim ruling to preserve their ability to bring him to justice. The Committee responded by asking Senegal "not to expel Mr. Hissene Habreand to take all necessary measures to prevent Mr. Hissene Habre from leaving Senegalese territory except pursuant to an extradition procedure."

"This ruling is a great victory for Habre's thousands of victims," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, the lawyer who represents the victims before the U.N. Committee against Torture. "Hissene Habre is not just an undesirable to be expelled, he is an accused torturer who should be brought to justice. The day when Habre will have to answer for his crimes is fast approaching."

The United Nations Committee against Torture is composed of 10 experts elected by the 123 states which have ratified the Torture Convention. States usually comply with its decisions, and Senegal is expected to do so. President Wade has in the past said that he had no objection to a trial of Habre in another country.

"This decision is based on the principle that Senegal is obliged to prosecute or extradite alleged torturers like Hissene Habre," said the Senegalese lawyer, Sidiki Kaba, who is the president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH).

"I don't think Senegal will ignore this ruling and let Habre escape justice," said Alioune Tine of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO).

The Chadian victims at the center of the case were jubilant. "The United Nations has heard our pleas," said Suleymane Guengueng, 49, who almost died of dengue fever during two years of mistreatment in Chadian prisons, before helping to found the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP). "If Senegal will not put Habre on trial for his atrocities, it must at least hand him over to a country that will."

The petition to the United Nations was brought by the same seven Chadian victims who had filed the criminal case in Dakar. In January 2000, the victims provided a Senegalese court with details of 97 cases of political killings, 142 cases of torture and 100 cases of "disappearance" committed by Habre's forces during his 1982-1990 rule.

In February 2000, Senegalese Judge Demba Kandji indicted Habre on torture charges, and placed him under house arrest. On July 4, 2000, the Court of Appeals dismissed the charges against Habre, ruling that Senegal had not enacted legislation to implement the Torture Convention and therefore had no jurisdiction to pursue crimes not committed in Senegal. That decision was upheld on March 20 by the Cour de Cassation, Senegal's court of final appeals.

Habre, now 58, took power in Chad in 1982. Habre's one-party regime, supported by the United States and France, was marked by widespread abuse and campaigns against the ethnic Sara (1984), Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989). Habre was deposed in December 1990 and has lived in Senegal since. A truth commission accused Habre's government of 40,000 murders and systematic torture.

The victims' case is also backed by the Chadian Association for Human Rights (ATPDH), the Chadian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the National Organization for Human Rights (Senegal), the London-based Interights, and the French organization Agir Ensemble pour les droits de l'homme.

Brody of Human Rights Watch also announced that the organizations have written to other governments, advising them that Habre's victims will seek to bring him to justice wherever he goes.