(Brussels) - A Belgian judge leaves for Chad today to pursue his investigation of Chad's exiled former president, Hissène Habré. Habré, known as an "African Pinochet," lives in exile in Senegal, where he was indicted last year on charges of crimes against humanity and torture before courts ruled that he could not be tried there.

Investigating Judge Daniel Fransen of the Brussels district court will visit Chad from February 26 to March 7, together with a prosecutor and police inspectors to interview victims and witnesses, look at evidence against the former dictator and visit old massacre and detention sites, said Georges-Henri Beauthier, the lawyer for the Chadian victims who filed the case.

Human rights groups hailed the move as a turning point in the years-long effort to bring Habré to justice, as well as an example of the continuing vitality of Belgium's broad anti-atrocity law.

"The wheels of justice are turning," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, who coordinates the victims' quest for justice. "For the judge and his team to make this long trip shows that Belgium is taking this investigation very seriously. The judge has already taken alot of testimony in Belgium about Habré's atrocities, now he is going to see for himself where and how it all happened."

"In the political and legal obstacle course to bringing Habré to book, a new hurdle has been overcome," added Sidiki Kaba, the President of the International Federation of Human Rights.

In February 2000, a Senegalese court charged Habré, who ruled the former French colony of Chad in central Africa from 1982 to 1990, with torture and crimes against humanity and placed him under house arrest. But in March 2001 Senegal's highest court said that Habré could not stand trial for crimes allegedly committed elsewhere. Habré's victims immediately announced that they would seek Habré's extradition to Belgium, where a case has been brought by thirteen of Habré's victims, including three Chadians who now reside in Belgium.

Belgian law expressly incorporates the principle of "universal jurisdiction" that every state may bring to justice the perpetrators of particular crimes of international concern, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims. In a landmark trial last year, four Rwandans were convicted by a Belgian jury on charges of involvement in the 1994 genocide in their country.

Although the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled on February 14 that Belgium could not prosecute sitting high-ranking officials of foreign countries before its courts, that ruling does not apply to Hissène Habré, who is no longer in office and whose immunity is not sought by Chad.

The Chadian victims were jubilant at the news of the judge's visit. "After ten years of effort, having a judge actually come to Chad shows us that something is finally being done," said Suleymane Guengueng, 50, 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) which represents 792 of Habré's victims.

"I almost can't believe it," said Ismael Hachim, 44, President of the AVCRP, who spent 2 years in Habré's prisons and was subjected to the "Arbatachar," a frequent form of torture under Habré, in which a prisoner's four limbs were tied together behind his back, leading to loss of circulation and paralysis. "Since when has justice come all the way to Chad?"

Senegal is holding Hissène Habré pending his extradition. After Senegal's Court of Final Appeals ruled in March 2001 that Habré could not stand trial there, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade abruptly announced that he had asked Habré to leave Senegal. The victims filed a petition with the U.N. Committee against Torture, however, which asked Senegal "not to expel Mr. Hissène Habré and to take all necessary measures to prevent Mr. Hissène Habré from leaving Senegalese territory except pursuant to an extradition demand." The request was followed up by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and on September 27, President Wade announced that he would keep Hissène Habré in Senegal pending his extradition to a country such as Belgium where he would receive a fair trial.

Habré, now 60, took power in the former French colony of Chad in 1982. The United States and France supported Habré, seeing him as a bulwark against Libya's Moemmar Khadaffi. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help Habré take power in order, according to Secretary of State Alexander Haig, to "bloody Khadaffi's nose." The United States later provided Habré with tens of millions of dollars per year in military aid and gave training and support to the DDS while it was engaged in torture and other atrocities. The United States also used a clandestine base in Chad to train captured Libyan soldiers whom it was organizing into an anti-Khaddafi force. Habré was deposed in December 1990 and has lived in Senegal since.

Last year, the Chadian authorities granted unprecedented access to the files of Habré's dreaded political police - the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS) -- to the victims and their supporters. The files, submitted to Judge Fransen, detail Habré's campaigns against ethnic groups he perceived as threats to his regime such as the Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989), as well as the large-scale repression of ethnic groups in the south of the country (1984). Dozens of victims and witnesses have also traveled to Brussels to give their testimony.

A 1992 truth commission accused Habre's regime of 40,000 political murders and systematic torture, as well and of stealing $11.6 million from the Chadian treasury. With many ranking officials of the current government of Idriss Deby involved in Habré's crimes, however, the new government did not pursue Habre's extradition, and his victims have not sought to bring him back there.

The victims' case is also backed by the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, the Chadian League for Human Rights, the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Freedoms in Chad (APLFT), the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO) the National Organization for Human Rights (Senegal) and the French organizations AVRE and Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme.