(Khartoum, Sudan)- The African Union today decided to create a group of legal experts to recommend where and how Hissène Habré, the exiled former dictator of Chad, should be tried. The expert group is to report back at the next AU Summit in June.
Contrary to press reports, the AU leaders did not exclude Habré’s extradition to Belgium or any other option. Although Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told reporters today that he would not let Habré be tried outside of Africa, the official statement issued by African leaders said only that they would give preference to “an African mechanism.”
Habré’s victims and their supporters called on the panel of “eminent African jurists” to propose a plan that would lead to his prompt and fair trial.
“The African leaders have agreed that Hissène Habré must be brought to trial,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who coordinates the victims’ international campaign. “Now it is up to the panel to propose a feasible mechanism that would lead to Habré’s prompt and fair trial. This case must not be allowed to drag on or become a political football.”
In September 2005, a Belgian judge indicted Habré on charges of crimes against humanity and sought his extradition from Senegal, where Habré has lived since 1990. He was indicted there in 2001, but the courts said they could not try him. While the extradition request was pending, the government of Senegal in November asked the African Union to decide where Habré should be tried.
Human Rights Watch stressed that regardless of the outcome of the AU consultations, Senegal was still under a legal obligation to prosecute or extradite Habré, and that Belgium’s arrest warrant and extradition request were still valid.
Habré’s extradition to Belgium is still the best option for his trial, Human Rights Watch said.
“Extraditing Habré to Belgium is the most realistic option for ensuring a prompt and fair trial,” said Brody. “But there are other possibilities, including perhaps Habré’s trial in another African country with an independent judiciary. Creating an ad hoc African tribunal to try him would entail enormous political will, years of delay, and costs of at least $100 million.”
“We have been fighting for 15 years to have our day in court, and we are not giving up now,” said Ismael Hachim Abdallah, president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime.
Last week, 35 NGOs around Africa called on the African Union to recommend Habré’s extradition to Belgium.
A Human Rights Watch study “Options for Hissène Habré to Face Justice” can be found here
Hissène Habré ruled Chad from 1982 until 1990, when he was deposed by current President Idriss Déby and fled to Senegal. His one-party regime was marked by widespread atrocities. Habré periodically targeted various ethnic groups, killing and arresting group members en masse when he believed that their leaders posed a threat to his regime. Files of Habré’s political police, the DDS (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité), discovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001, reveal the names of 1,208 persons who died in detention. A total of 12,321 victims of different abuses were mentioned. In these files alone, Habré received 1,265 direct communications from the DDS about the status of 898 detainees.
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 21 of Habré’s victims had filed suit. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal then stated that he would hold Habré in Senegal and that “if a country capable of organizing a fair trial—there is talk of Belgium—wants him, I do not foresee any obstacle.”
A four-year investigation by a Belgian judge resulted in an international arrest warrant against Habré on September 19, 2005 and his arrest in Senegal on November 15. On November 25, a Senegalese court said that it had no jurisdiction to rule on the extradition request. On November 27, Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said that it was “up to the African Union summit to indicate the jurisdiction which is competent to hear the case.”
Information on the Habré case can be found here.