(Brussels) - The Chadian government's waiver of former President Hissène Habré's immunity will help pave the way for his prosecution on atrocity charges in Belgium, Human Rights Watch said today.

The waiver opens the way for the indictment of the former dictator and his extradition from Senegal, where he lives in exile, if Belgian politicians vote to retain that country's long-arm anti-atrocity statute. Habré, labeled an "African Pinochet," was indicted in Senegal two years ago on charges of torture and crimes against humanity before the Senegalese courts ruled that he could not be tried there. Chadian victims then filed charges against him in Belgium. The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, has said that he would extradite Habré to Belgium if a request were made.

Human rights groups applauded the Chadian move, saying that it was the first time that a country had waived the immunity of a former president to permit criminal human rights charges in another country.

"This waiver is a clear green light for Habre's prosecution," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, which helped the victims file the case. "We are one step closer to the day when Habré will have to answer in a court of law for his terrible crimes."

In a letter to the Belgian judge investigating the charges against Habré, Chad's justice minister Djimnain Koudj-Gaou wrote, "Mr. Hissène Habré can not claim to enjoy any form of immunity from the Chadian authorities" The document, dated October 7, 2002, was given today to Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), which immediately made it public.

In February and March, the Belgian judge, Daniel Fransen, visited Chad with a police team to investigate the charges against Habré. The judge visited Habré-era prisons and mass grave sites and interviewed victims as well as many of Habré's collaborators. The investigation has since been put on hold, however, as Belgian courts, in cases involving Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo, restricted the scope of the anti-atrocity to cases in which the

accused is already in Belgium. The Belgian parliament is now considering two laws to overturn those decisions and restore the law's longer reach.

The Chadian government letter resolves the legal question of state immunity. In a decision this February on a Belgian arrest warrant for the then-foreign minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said that certain high-ranking officials enjoyed "immunity of jurisdiction" from prosecution before the courts of another state. The ICJ left open the question of immunity for former office-holders. The Chadian waiver makes that point moot, however, since under international law the immunity belongs to the state and not to the official.

Chadian activists also hailed the waiver. "For the first time, the Chadian government has committed itself to bring about justice and fighting impunity," said Dobian Assingar, president of the Chadian League for Human Rights and vice-president of the FIDH, stated. "We welcome this stand, but we will remain vigilant to see how this plays out."

Twice before, governments have waived the immunity of former presidents to face human rights charges abroad, but these were for civil suits in United States. One was the case of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the other Prosper Avril of Haiti Hissène Habré ruled the former French colony of Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 1990 by current President Idriss Déby and fled to Senegal. His one-party regime, marked by widespread atrocities, was backed by the United States and France as a bulwark against Moemmar Khadaffi of Libya. Under President Ronald Reagan, the United States gave covert CIA paramilitary support to help Habré take power and later provided Habré with massive military aid and gave training and support to the his security forces. Habré launched several campaigns against ethnic groups such as the Sara (1984), the Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989), killing and arresting leaders and extended families and even destroying whole communities when he perceived that the groups were hostile to his regime.

A 1992 truth commission accused Habré 's regime of some 40,000 political murders and systematic torture. The Truth Commission called for the "immediate prosecution" of those responsible for atrocities. With many ranking officials of the current government involved in Habré's crimes, however, the new government did not pursue Habré's extradition from Senegal, and human rights groups doubt that he could get a fair trial in Chad.