Senegal's agreement on July 24, 2012, to establish a special court to try the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, if swiftly implemented, could mark a turning point in the long campaign to bring him to justice, a coalition of human rights groups said today.
Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture when he ruled Chad, from 1982 to 1990. Habré has been living in exile in Senegal for more than 21 years but has yet to face justice there. On July 20, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Senegal must prosecute Habré "without further delay" if it does not extradite him.
"After so many years of effort and so many disappointments, this agreement could finally give Hissène Habré's victims their day in court," said Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch, who has worked with the victims for 13 years. "The political will seems to be there in Senegal, and the World Court decision means there can be no turning back, but we are not there yet. Senegal should begin proceedings quickly, before more survivors die."
After four days of talks in Dakar, between July 20 and 24, Senegal agreed to an African Union (AU) plan to try Habré before a special court in the Senegalese justice system with African judges appointed by the AU presiding over his trial. Senegal's president, Macky Sall, has said he wants proceedings against Habré to begin by the end of the year, and the parties agreed to a road map that would have the court operational by year's end.
The International Committee for the Fair Trial of Hissène Habré - which comprises the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH), the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH), the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), Human Rights Watch, and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), among others - said that Senegal's decision, after the World Court ruling, was another important victory for Habré's victims.
"Senegal made history in 1999 as the first country to join the International Criminal Court, and it could make history again by being the first country to prosecute the human rights crimes of a foreign leader," said Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar-based RADDHO. "The Senegalese government is demonstrating its resolve to fight impunity at the highest levels."
The new agreement calls for "Extraordinary African Chambers" to be created inside the existing Senegalese court structure in Dakar. The chambers' mandate will be to prosecute the person or persons most responsible for atrocity crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990. The chambers will have sections to handle investigations, trials, and appeals, and will consist of Senegalese and other African judges.
The coalition - which has been pressing for Habré's extradition to Belgium as the fastest way to achieve justice - called on Senegal to set up the new court swiftly and start proceedings against Habré as soon as possible. Senegal still needs parliamentary approval for the plan and has said it will seek international funding for the court.
The coalition called for the establishment of a strong management committee - comprised of Senegal, the AU, and donor countries - to ensure sound financial management of the court's budget, to supervise training of judicial staff and to oversee outreach to the Chadian public, and to provide technical assistance where necessary.
The coalition also said Senegal should move quickly to incorporate the results of Belgian and Chadian investigations into Habré's crimes instead of starting from scratch.
A Belgian judge and his team spent nearly four years investigating Habré's crimes before indicting him on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture in 2005, leading Belgium to request his extradition from Senegal. A 1992 National Truth Commission in Chad accused Habré's government of systemic torture and up to 40,000 political assassinations.
The draft statute for the new court also allows Senegalese prosecutors to go after "the most serious" of Habré's crimes rather than charging him with all the acts of which he is accused. The measure is aimed at ensuring that the trial is manageable and does not drag on for years.
"If Senegal is committed to providing justice to the victims, it should complete the investigations and bring Habré to a fair trial as quickly as possible," said Jacqueline Moudeïna, lawyer for Habré's victims and coordinator of the International Committee. "Senegal should also ensure that Habré's victims can participate fully in his trial and should take steps to make the trial meaningful to people back in Chad."
The draft statute allows victims to participate as civil parties in the trial. It also provides for trial proceedings to be recorded for broadcast in Chad and for public access to the trial by journalists and non-governmental organizations.
The World Court's landmark decision on July 20 found that Senegal had violated its legal obligations under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It ordered Senegal to bring Habré to justice "without further delay" either by prosecuting him in Senegal or extraditing him to Belgium. In June, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Senegalese government to take "concrete steps" to prosecute Habré in Senegal or extradite him to Belgium.
"In less than four months, Macky Sall's government has made progress on a case that has lingered for years," said Souhayr Belhassen, president of the FIDH. "With this agreement and recent public statements by Sall and other high-ranking officials, we trust that the government will take steps to maintain this momentum and bring Habré to justice swiftly."
Habré was deposed in 1990 by President Idriss Déby Itno and fled to Senegal. His one-party rule was marked by widespread atrocities, including waves of ethnic cleansing. Files of Habré's political police, the 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 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. His victims then filed charges in Belgium and in September 2005, after four years of investigation, a Belgian judge indicted Habré and Belgium requested his extradition. Senegal then turned to the AU, which called on Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa" in July 2006. President Abdoulaye Wade accepted the AU mandate and Senegal amended its law to give the country's courts extraterritorial jurisdiction over international crimes. However, years of wrangling over the trial budget ensued until in November 2010, Senegal and donor countries finally agreed to a budget of €8.6 million (US$11.4 million) for Habré's trial. Just days earlier, a ruling by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) complicated matters by requiring Habré to be tried before a "special ad hoc procedure of an international character."
In response to the ECOWAS court ruling, the AU proposed creating a special court within the Senegalese justice system, but President Wade rejected the plan. Senegal and the AU continued discussions and, in March 2011, agreed in principle to a new plan. In May 2011, however, Senegal withdrew from negotiations.
In July 2011, Senegal threatened to expel Habré to Chad but, days later, retracted its decision in the face of an international outcry. The Chadian government then announced its support for extraditing Habré to Belgium to face trial.
Since that time, Belgium has submitted two new extradition requests to Senegalese authorities, the latter of which remains pending.