The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague has set public hearings for March in a case that has pitted Senegal against Belgium over the extradition of former Chadian president Hissene Habré.
Belgium, under the principal of universal jurisdiction, wants to try the former leader for alleged atrocities he committed while in power from 1982 to 1990.
The country brought its suit to the ICJ three years ago, saying that Senegal "is obliged to bring criminal proceedings against Mr. H. Habré for acts including crimes of torture and crimes against humanity" or, failing prosecution, is "obliged to extradite him to the Kingdom of Belgium so that he can answer for these crimes before the Belgian courts".
Habré has been in exile in Senegal for more than 20 years, ever since being ousted from power in 1990. Belgium has filed four requests to Dakar for his extradition. Three of them have been denied; the fourth, filed just last month, is still pending.
"This is the case that could finally force the Senegalese government to allow Habré to be brought to trial," said Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson at the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has worked with Habré's victims for 13 years. "Senegal's legal obligation to prosecute or extradite Habré is clear."
Last resort Belgium
Habré was first indicted in Senegal in 2000. But according to HRW, after interference by the Senegalese government that was denounced by two UN human rights rapporteurs, the country's courts said that he could not be tried there. His victims then filed a case in Belgium.
After four years of investigation, a Belgian judge first requested his extradition in September 2005. A Senegalese court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to decide on the extradition request.
The most recent ruling by the Dakar appeals court in mid-January rejected Belgium's third extradition request on procedural grounds, including that "the copy of the international arrest warrant submitted to the dossier was not authentic".
Senegal is under growing pressure to allow Habre to face justice, with the African Union recently urging it to either try the former leader itself or send him to a country that would.
Habré, 69, who was ousted in a coup by current President Idriss Deby, has been accused of thousands of killings and other atrocities during his eight-year rule of the Central African state.
Belgium's suit before the ICJ 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 has breached its obligations to bring to justice those accused of crimes against humanity.
With next month's hearings, HRW hopes that the ICJ case finally results in a "binding legal order compelling Senegal to extradite Habré to Belgium if it does not prosecute him."
"Belgium has stood by the victims from the beginning," said Clement Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré, who as a prisoner under Habré was forced to dig graves for more than 500 fellow inmates. "We hope that the world court will see through the Senegalese government's charades and will order Senegal to hand Habré over to Belgium to face trial."
The ICJ's ruling-which is likely many months away-will be binding, but the court has no enforcement mechanism.