Senegal steps closer to try ex-Chad leader

New court inaugurated to investigate and possibly try former dictator accused of torturing and murdering dissidents.

Chad''s former President Hissene Habre wa
Chad's former President Hissane Habre has been living in exile in Senegal for 22 years [AFP]

Dakar, Senegal – The long arm of law finally seems to be closing in on Hissane Habre, more than two decades after the ex-Chadian dictator found shelter in Senegal.

Last week Senegal inaugurated the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court that will oversee the trial of Habre, arguably one of Africa’s most notorious dictators.

Habre, who ruled Chad from 1982 until 1990, stands accused of torturing and murdering thousands of political dissidents during his presidency.

Many international observers have extolled the Extraordinary African Chambers as a turning point in the continent’s struggle to bring former dictators to justice, with others praising its inauguration as a fresh page in Senegalese politics.

Habre fled to Senegal in 1990, where he has lived in exile. Although a group of his alleged victims filed a formal criminal complaint against the former dictator in Dakar in 2000, no progress was made in the case until 2011.

Although complex jurisdictional issues played some role in the delay, many have accused Senegal’s former president Abdoulaye Wade of intentionally stalling the trial for political purposes; Habre’s personal friendships with many highly placed officials in Wade’s government – especially with the Minister of Justic Cheik Tidiane Sy –  have also been well publicised.

“It’s no secret that Habre emptied out the treasury of Chad before he left and he’s used that money to build a web of support and protection,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who is serving as the chief counsel for Habre’s victims. “That stood in the way of justice being done.”

The relationship between Senegal’s judicial authorities and the ex-dictator accused of crimes against humanity raised eyebrows in the diplomatic community. A confidential US embassy memo dated July 2007 – which was later released by Wikileaks – shows international authorities were concerned about the issue.  “Human rights groups believe that with Minister Sy on his side, Habre will never be tried,” the memo said.

We were plunged into a psychological and moral torment because we couldn’t believe that we, the survivors, could have no recourse to justice.”

– Souleymane Guengueng, victim

Despite the difficulty of confirming the allegations, many believe that Wade knowingly impeded the trial’s progress for his own political gain.

“Abdoulaye Wade found himself in a politically complicated situation, and he didn’t want to upset his supporters,” explained Assane Dioma Ndiaye, a lawyer representing the victims, adding that “Habre has many connections here in Senegal.”

Francois Serre, Habre’s new lawyer, is in Cote d’Ivoire at the moment, and was unable to be reached for comment.

Legal purgatory

Meanwhile, Habre’s victims found themselves in legal purgatory. More testimonies were released detailing accounts of maltreatment and torture at the hands of Habre’s special police, the DDS. Prisoners claim they were denied medical attention, were allowed to eat only twice a week and were kept in squalid conditions. Other reported summary executions in the desert.  

Several Chadian citizens who had fled to Belgium filed complaints there, urging Habre to be extradited in the face of Wade’s inaction.

“It finally reached a tipping point for the EU,” explained Dominique Dellicour, head of the European Union’s delegation in Senegal. “The EU, which has been the chief financial contributor to the budget of the trial, was in continual discussions with the previous government, constantly demanding when justice would be served and when the trial would start.”

The International Court of Justice gave Senegal an ultimatum: try Habre or extradite him to Belgium, where he would be tried under international law. 

“It was torture,” recalls Habre’s victim Souleymane Guengueng of Wade’s apparent stonewalling. “He [Wade] renewed the torture. We were plunged into a psychological and moral torment because we couldn’t believe that we, the survivors, could have no recourse to justice.”

Since Macky Sall defeated Abdoulaye Wade in last year’s presidential elections, however, the proceedings have made rapid headway. Last June, just three months after taking office, Macky Sall announced that Habre would be tried in Senegal. In August, Senegal and the African Union established the Extraordinary African Chambers. 

“This is the first time in 20 years there’s a government in Senegal that has the political will to bring Habre to justice. Macky Sall and his minister of justice Aminata Toure have done more in ten months to reward the tenacity and the perseverance of Habre’s victims than the previous governments had done in two decades,” says HRW’s Brody.

HRW sees Macky Sall’s decisive action on the Habre trial as a stance against the web of special interests which appears to have held sway under Wade’s presidency. “It seems like Macky Sall’s government is not going to be held back by those interests,” Brody added.

I want the truth to come out, but I want the trial to be fair. Both sides must be heard.”

– Sata Gaye, victim’s brother

That Habre should be judged in Africa by Africans has been a priority of the European Union, Dellicour said. “In the fight against impunity, when crimes happen on the African continent, they should be judged on the African continent,” she said, adding that the EU strongly supports Macky Sall’s decision to move swiftly on the matter.

But it still remains to be seen if justice will in fact be done. The Extraordinary African Chambers have announced a 15-month investigative phase and if there is enough evidence for an indictment, the trial will begin in 2014.

Despite the decades-long wait for justice, many victims and their families don’t take issue with this proposed timetable, insisting that above all the trial be impartial.

“I want the truth to come out, but I want the trial to be fair. Both sides must be heard,” said Sata Gaye, whose brother died in a Chadian prison under Habre’s regime.

“I want him to admit what he did,” Gaye said quietly, her eyes tearing. “I don’t know if he will, but I’ll wait to see how the trial goes.”

Source: Al Jazeera