(Brussels)-A Belgian judge has issued an international arrest warrant charging Chad's former dictator Hissène Habré with atrocities during his 1982-90 rule. Habré, known as an "African Pinochet," lives in exile in Senegal, where he was indicted five years ago before courts ruled that he could not be tried there. Belgium is now formally seeking Habré's extradition from Senegal to stand trial.
The warrant marks a turning point in the long and labyrinthian effort to bring Habré to justice. The governments of Senegal and Chad have both indicated support for Habré's extradition.
Human rights groups hailed the warrant, issued by Investigating Judge Daniel Fransen of the Brussels district court on September 19 and made public today, as a groundbreaking move reminiscent of Spain's arrest warrant for Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile.
"This is a great day for Habré's thousands of victims and a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who coordinates the international efforts of the Chadian victim plaintiffs. "It's taken many years, and many twists and turns, but in the end Habré could not escape his victims." Brody noted that Habré could now become the first ex-president ever extradited to face human rights charges in another country's courts.
The indictment was issued under Belgium's "universal jurisdiction" law which allowed prosecution of the worst atrocities no matter where they were committed. In August 2003, under pressure from the United States, Belgium repealed that law, but the Habré case was allowed to continue because the investigation was already underway and three plaintiffs are Belgian citizens.
"The indictment of Habré shows how the Belgian law was supposed to work," said Georges-Henri Beauthier, the lawyer for the victims who are bringing the suit. "Habré's crimes are serious and are well-documented. The governments of Chad and Senegal support Habré's extradition. Justice, which the victims have never been able to get anywhere, will finally be done."
In February 2000, a Senegalese court charged Habré 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 in Senegal for crimes allegedly committed elsewhere. Habré's victims immediately announced that they would seek Habré's extradition to Belgium, where twenty-one of Habré's victims had filed suit. After Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade moved to expel Habré in 2001, the victims appealed to the U.N. Committee against Torture and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who persuaded President Wade to hold Habré in Senegal pending an extradition request.
Rights groups called on Senegal to arrest Habré immediately. "Senegal failed to prosecute Habré when it had the chance. The onus is now on Senegal to arrest him and extradite him to Belgium so he can finally face justice," said Alioune Tine of the Senegal-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), another group supporting the victims.
Habré, now 63, 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 Mohamar el-Qaddafi. 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 Qaddafi's nose." The United States later provided Habré with tens of millions of dollars per year in military aid. Habré was overthrown in December 1990 by current President Idriss Déby and has lived in Senegal since.
In February and March 2002, Judge Fransen visited Chad where he interviewed dozens of witnesses, visited Habré's prisons and mass graves together with former detainees, and took copies of the files of Habré's dreaded political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). The files, discovered by Human Rights Watch, detail how Habré's regime attacked rival ethnic groups and organized the repression of political opponents and list 1,208 persons who died in detention.
In November 2002, the government of Chad wrote to Judge Fransen to waive any immunity that Habré might seek to assert. President Wade of Senegal has repeatedly said that he has no objection to Habré's extradition to Belgium.
Among the Chadian plaintiffs is Sabadet Totodet, 42, who spent almost four years in Habré's prisons. In addition to being detained in inhumane conditions, without sufficient food or medical care, he was forced to dig mass graves where prisoners who died in detention were buried daily. Totodet estimated that he buried 1,500 prisoners.
Most of the twenty-one plaintiffs were tortured in prison. Ismael Hachim underwent the "Arbatachar," in which a prisoner's four limbs were tied together behind his back, leading to loss of circulation and paralysis. Hachim is now president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crimes (AVCRP), which represents over 1,000 of Habré's victims.
Chadian victims were jubilant at the news of the arrest warrant. "Long live Belgium," said Souleymane Guengueng, 53, who almost died of dengue fever during two years of mistreatment in Chadian prisons, before helping to found the AVCRP. "After what he did to us, this is a dream come true. I can already see Hissène Habré sitting in a Belgian jail."
A 1992 Chadian truth commission accused Habré's regime of some 40,000 killings and systematic torture, and of stealing more than 11 million dollars from the Chadian treasury. The new government, which until this year included many of Habré's henchmen, did not pursue Habré's extradition, however, and his victims have not sought to bring him back there. In August 2005, in response to a report by Human Rights Watch listing forty-one top Habré-era officials still in positions of power, the government pledged to remove them all.
"This case has nine lives," said Brody of Human Rights Watch. "When the prosecution was thrown out in Senegal, the victims found a court in Belgium; when it looked like Habré would leave Senegal and escape justice, the United Nations persuaded Senegal to hold him; when the Belgian anti-atrocity law was repealed, the Habré case won a grandfather clause to allow it to continue."
Belgium's extradition request will go before the Indicting Chamber of the Dakar Appeals Court within a maximum of three weeks, where Habré may challenge his extradition. If the court rules that Habré can be extradited, it is then up to Senegal's president to sign an extradition decree.