(Dakar) – President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Senegal’sefforts to bring to book the former Chadiandictator Hissène Habré is a recognition of the case’s importance for African justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
According to two sources present at President Obama’s June 27 meeting with Senegal’s president Macky Sall, Obama praised Senegal’s establishment of the Extraordinary African Chambersin February 2013, to try the worst crimes of Habré’s government. Obama said the United States would provide resources to support the work of the tribunal.
“Senegal deserves credit for offering a path to justice for Habré’s long suffering victims,” said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch who has worked with Habré’s victims since 1999. “The Hissène Habrétrial, if it is fair and transparent, could mark a turning point for justice in Africa.”
Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture during his presidency, from 1982 until 1990. He was deposed by President Idriss Deby Itno and fled to Senegal, where he has been living ever since, as his victims waged a 22-year campaign to bring him to justice.
Although a Senegalese judge indicted Habré in 2000, the previous Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, found one pretext after another to delay Habré’s reckoning, turning his victims’ saga into what the Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu describedas an “interminable political and legal soap opera.”
The Obama administration has supported the victims’ campaign to bring Habré to justice. In September 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote to then-President Wade to urge a speedy trial. In a June 2012 reportto Congress, Secretary Clinton stated that, “[a]fter 20 years, the victims deserve justice and their day in court” and urged Senegal to take “concrete steps” to prosecute Habré. That report followed a December 2011 congressional requestto report on “steps taken by the Government of Senegal to assist in bringing Habré to justice.”
After MackySall’s election as president of Senegal in April 2012, and the decision of the International Court of Justice on July 20, 2012, ordering Senegal to prosecute Habré “without further delay” or to extradite him, Senegal moved swiftly to reach an agreement with the African Union on the special court with Senegalese and other African judges, which was inauguratedon February 8, 2013. The court’s prosecutor visited Chad from June 8 to June 16, 2013, and is expected to file formal charges against Habré shortly.
“In just over one year, Macky Sall’s government has accomplished more to reward the perseverance and tenacity of Habré’s victims than Senegal had over the course of two decades,” Brody said.
Habré’s one-party rule was marked by widespread atrocities, including waves of ethnic cleansing. The files of Habré’s political police recovered by Human Rights Watch reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations.
Habré was first indicted in Senegal in 2000, but the country’s courts said that he could not be tried there, so his victims filed a case in Belgium. In September 2005, after four years of investigation, a Belgian judge indicted Habré and Belgium requested his extradition. Senegal refused to send Habré to Belgium, and spent the next three years stalling on a request from the African Union to try Habré in Senegal. Belgium then filed a case against Senegal at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), leading to the court’s July 20, 2012 order to Senegal to prosecute Habré “without further delay” or to extradite him.
After Sall’s election as president of Senegal in April 2012, Senegal and the African Union agreed on a plan to create Extraordinary African Chambers to conduct the trial within the Senegalese judicial system. The chambers can prosecute “the person or persons most responsible” for international crimes committed in Chad between June 7, 1982, and December 1, 1990.