(Dakar) - Senegal should accept an African Union (AU) plan for the trial of Hissène Habré during discussions set for March 23 and 24, 2011, in Addis Ababa, a coalition of human rights organizations said today in a letter to Senegal's president.
The African Union, which called at its summit in January for an "expeditious" start to a long-delayed trial, invited Senegal to the Ethiopian capital to discuss an AU proposal to try the former Chadian dictator before a special court within the Senegalese justice system whose president and appeals chamber president would be appointed by the AU. The Senegalese delegation to the talks will be led by Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy.
Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture when he ruled Chad, from 1982 to 1990, before fleeing to Senegal. Senegal has raised one objection after another to bringing him to trial, while refusing to send him to Belgium, which sought his extradition in 2005.
"Senegal has two choices," said Assane Dioma Ndiaye, Président of the Senegalese League for Human Rights. "Either it accepts the African Union plan and begins proceedings against Habré right away, or it extradites Habré to Belgium. It would be a shame if Africa could not meet this challenge when everything is set for an African country to provide a fair trial for any crimes committed in Africa."
President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal said recently that he was "returning" the case to the AU, and Foreign Minister Madické Niang has called for the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute Habré.
The letter to President Wade was signed by the Association of Victims of Hissène Habré's Regime, the Senegalese League for Human Rights, the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, Acting Together for Human Rights (Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l'Homme), and Human Rights Watch. The letter warned that it would be impossible to finance an international tribunal,and that any attempt to create an ad hoc tribunal along the Sierra Leone or Rwanda models, or to add significant international staff to the AU proposal, would be seen as a way of " burying the case."
Last Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, also told President Wade that the Habré trial should begin "as soon as possible," and that if Senegal could not begin the case quickly, it should extradite Habré to Belgium.
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 campaigns against various ethnic groups. Files of Habré's political police, the Documentation and Security Board (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité, DDS), which were discovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001, reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention. A total of 12,321 victims of human rights violations were mentioned in the files.
Habre was first indicted in Senegal in 2000, but then Senegalese 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 issued an arrest warrant charging Habré with crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, and requested his extradition.
Senegal then asked the African Union to recommend a course of action. On July 2, 2006, the AU called on Senegal to prosecute Habré. Wade accepted, but refused to proceed for several years, until Senegal was provided with money to finance the trial. On November 24, 2010, international donors met in Dakar and agreed to fund the US$11.7 million budget for the trial.
Before the donors' meeting, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States said that Habré's trial should be carried out by "a special ad hoc procedure of an international character." That decision has been severely criticized by the Journal of International Criminal Justice, the American Society of International Law , and the President of the Irish Section of the International Law Association.
The AU responded to that decision by proposing the creation of a special court within the Senegalese justice system with the presidents of the trial court and the appeals court appointed by the AU. The court would prosecute the person or persons "who bear the greatest responsibility" for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture committed in Chad from June 1982 to December 1990.
In July 2010, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 117 groups from 25 African countries denounced the "interminable political and legal soap opera" to which the victims had been subjected over 20 years.