(Banjul)- Senegal’s decision to prosecute the exiled former dictator of Chad, in response to a request by the African Union, is a turning point in the long campaign to bring Hissène Habré to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
“It’s a great day for justice in Africa, because the continent’s leaders have shown that no one, not even an ex-president, can escape the law,” said Reed Brody, special counsel to Human Rights Watch. “Senegal must now act quickly. It has to pass the laws needed to allow Habré’s trial, and take account of the years of investigation already carried out.”
Habré, who fled to Senegal in 1990 after an eight-year rule marked by widespread atrocities, was first indicted in 2000 in Senegal on charges of torture and crimes against humanity. After Senegalese courts ruled that Habré could not be tried there, his victims turned to Belgium, which indicted Habré last September after a four-year investigation and requested his extradition from Dakar. It was refused by the Senegalese government, which instead asked the African Union (AU) to decide where Habré should be tried. After hearing the report of a panel of legal experts, the AU today asked Senegal to reverse itself and prosecute Habré. President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal announced that his government had agreed to the request.
Habré’s victims and their supporters hailed the decision, but called on Senegal to act swiftly. They warned that if Senegal dragged its feet, they would seek other recourse.
“After fighting for justice for 16 years, it looks as if we may get our day in court,” said Ismael Hachim Abdallah, president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Crime and Political Repression. “But survivors of Habré’s regime are dying, and we can’t wait forever. Senegal has betrayed us twice and we aren’t taking anything for granted.”
In asking Senegal to take the case, the African leaders cited Senegal’s obligations under the 1984 U.N. Convention against Torture to either prosecute or extradite alleged torturers who enter its territory. In May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture condemned Senegal for failing to bring Habré to justice and requested that Senegal ensure Habré’s trial or extradition. Belgium has warned that if Senegal did not abide by its legal commitments, Belgium would seek a binding ruling from the International Court of Justice.
The AU panel of legal experts called on Senegal to adopt legislative reforms extending the jurisdiction of Senegalese courts to cover Habré’s alleged crimes. The U.N. Committee Against Torture had made a similar request.
Human Rights Watch also said that to avoid even more years of delay, Senegal should make the necessary legal arrangements to allow its courts to use of the fruits of Belgium’s pretrial investigation. These include police reports, witness interviews, and thousands of documents recovered from the former headquarters of Habré’s secret police.
The victims’ Chadian lawyer praised Belgium’s role in the case, and called on it to remain attentive to the case.
“Belgium gave the victims hope for justice and forced Senegal to act,” said Jacqueline Moudeina, president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. “We hope that Belgium remains ready to take the case to the International Court of Justice if Senegal doesn’t live up to its word.”
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 named. 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 his extradition to Belgium, where 21 of Habré’s victims had filed suit. Wade 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.”
Last September, after a four-year investigation including a mission to Chad, a Belgian judge issued an international arrest warrant charging Habré with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. Pursuant to the arrest warrant and a Belgian extradition request, Senegalese authorities arrested Habré on November 15. After a Senegalese court refused to rule on the extradition request, Senegal announced that it had asked the January summit of the African Union to recommend “the competent jurisdiction” for the trial of Habré. That summit set up a Committee of Eminent African Jurists to consider the options for Habré’s trial and to report back at the AU summit.