(Brussels, February 20, 2009) - Belgium's request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to order Senegal to prosecute or extradite the exiled former dictator of Chad, is an important step towards ensuring that Hissène Habré does not escape justice, five African and international human rights groups said today. Belgium made the application to the court late on February 19, 2009.
Habré, accused of massive atrocities during his rule in Chad from 1982 to 1990, has lived in Senegal since his fall. Senegal arrested him on torture charges in 2000 but released him in 2001. Belgium indicted Habré on charges of crimes against humanity and torture in 2005 and sought his extradition. Senegal referred the matter to the African Union, which in July 2006 called on Senegal to prosecute Habré. But more than two years later, Senegal has failed to institute proceedings against Habré, said the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH), the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).
Belgium also asked the ICJ immediately to order Senegal not to allow Habré to leave Senegal pending the court's judgment on the merits. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has threatened to allow Habré to leave Senegal if international donors do not provide €27 million in trial costs to Senegal.
"Belgium is saying that it's time finally to provide justice to Hissène Habré's victims, who have been fighting for 18 years to have their day in court," said Reed Brody, special counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Senegal's legal obligation to prosecute or extradite Habré is clear."
"Belgium has every reason to go to the ICJ because Senegal has been bluffing for too long," said Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar-based the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO). "Senegal is pretending to move forward on the case but the fact remains that not a single concrete step has been taken."
Belgium's application charges that Senegal has violated the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by failing to prosecute or extradite Habré, and breached its obligations to bring to justice those accused of crimes against humanity.
In May 2006, the United Nations Committee against Torture already found that Senegal had violated the Convention against Torture and called on Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habré, but Senegal has not complied with that ruling.
The International Court of Justice, which sits in The Hague, is the United Nations' highest court. The court deals generally with cases between UN member states and it has no jurisdiction to prosecute individuals. Its rulings can be legally binding on states.
The torture convention provides that any dispute between two states parties concerning its application which it has not been possible to settle through negotiation or arbitration may be submitted to the ICJ by one of the states. Negotiations between Belgium and Senegal have been going on since 2005 when Senegal did not respond to Belgium's extradition request.
In its application, Belgium asks the ICJ to rule that Senegal is obliged to bring criminal proceedings against Habré or, failing his prosecution, to extradite him to Belgium.
Speaking for the victims, Souleymane Guengueng, founder of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), said: "Long live Belgium! So many survivors have already died. Unless Senegal can be made to bring Hissène Habré to justice soon, there won't be any victims left at his trial."
Guengueng almost died of dengue fever during almost three years of mistreatment in Chadian prisons.
"It's not the money that is lacking for Hissène Habré's trial, but Senegal's political will," said Dobian Assingar, a Chadian activist with the FIDH.
Hissène Habré ruled Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 1990 by President Idriss Déby Itno and fled to Senegal. His one-party regime was marked by widespread atrocities, including waves of ethnic campaigns. Files of Habré's political police, the DDS (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité), which were discovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001, reveal the names of 1,208 persons who were killed or died in detention. A total of 12,321 victims of human rights violations were mentioned in the files.
Habré was first indicted in Senegal in 2000 before courts ruled that he could not be tried there. His victims then turned to Belgium and, after a four-year investigation, a Belgian judge in September 2005 charged Habré with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture.
Following a Belgian extradition request, Senegalese authorities arrested Habré in November 2005. The Senegalese government then asked the African Union to propose how to try Habré. On July 2, 2006, the African Union, following the recommendation of a Committee of Eminent African Jurists, called on Senegal to prosecute Habré "in the name of Africa," and Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade declared that Dakar would do so.
In 2007-2008, Senegal amended its constitution and laws to permit the prosecution of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture no matter when and where the acts occurred.
On September 16, 14 victims filed complaints with a Senegalese prosecutor accusing Habré of crimes against humanity and torture. Since then, Senegal has said that it will not process the complaints or move forward with the procedure until it receives full international funding for all the costs of the trial. Wade said in October that if Senegal did not receive full international funding he would make Habré "leave Senegal." The European Commission has already offered €2 million for the first stages of the investigation, but is waiting for Senegal to present a budget. Chad has offered €3 million. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have also agreed to help finance the trial.