Twenty-one years after his overthrow and flight to Senegal, the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré may finally face trial for brutality against his own people. On Tuesday, July 24, four days after the world court in The Hague ruled that Senegal must bring Habré to justice, Senegal and the African Union agreed on a plan for a special court to try Habré. Senegal's new president, Macky Sall, says he wants proceedings to begin later this year.
If the case does go forward, it would mark a significant reversal of fortune for Habré and his victims. Despite being accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture during his 1982-1990 reign, Habré has basked in two seaside villas in Dakar, using the millions he allegedly stole from Chad to build a network of supporters in Senegal.
A Senegalese judge indicted Habré in 2000 on atrocity charges, but former 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 described as an "interminable political and legal soap opera."
Indeed, it is only the tenacity and perseverance of a group of prison survivors that has kept the case going for so many years. Souleymane Guengueng, who almost died from dengue fever during 2 ½ years in Habré's jails and who watched dozens of cellmates die, took an oath that if he got out alive, he would fight for justice. He rallied wary survivors and widows into an association and went to Senegal to press charges.
When threats from Habré's henchmen back in Chad forced Guengueng into exile, he was replaced by Clement Abaifouta - the "gravedigger" whose prison job was to bury other detainees in mass graves. Their lawyer, Jacqueline Moudeina, still has shrapnel in her leg from 2001, when one of Habré's security chiefs, who had returned as police chief of Chad's capital, had a grenade thrown at her.
The case nearly ended in 2001, when Senegalese courts, following interference by President Wade, ruled they couldn't try Habré for crimes committed abroad. But the victims filed a case in Belgium, whose long-arm universal jurisdiction law allowed its courts to hear many foreign atrocity charges. A four-year Belgian investigation led to Habré's indictment there and Belgium's request for Habré's extradition.
Wade turned instead to the African Union, which called on Senegal to try Habré domestically. Wade consented, but stalled for years by demanding exorbitant up-front sums for the trial from the international community. When donors finally agreed on an $11.7 million budget, Wade called the whole thing off.
Belgium - which has stood by the victims for 11 years - raised the stakes by taking the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which ruled that Senegal must prosecute the former dictator "without further delay" if it does not extradite him. In June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also urged Senegal to take "concrete steps" to try Habré or send him to Belgium.
President Sall, who took office in April, has pledged a break from the cronyism and corruption of the Wade era, however. Together with his new justice minister, Aminata Touré, labeled "Mimi the Storm" by the local press, they have created a special court to look into fraud and ill-gotten gains by public officials and have pressed to recover state assets hidden abroad. They say the Habré case is part of their campaign against official impunity and have agreed to include judges from other African countries in the new court.
Swift action is needed now before more survivors die without justice. The alleged crimes are massive. In 2001, I stumbled on the abandoned files of Habré's political police, listing 12,321 victims of abuse, including 1,208 killed or died in jail. But the trial doesn't have to drag on for years, as court rules will permit a selection of the most serious crimes.
Some African leaders have claimed that Africa is unfairly targeted by international courts. The real problem, however, is a lack of justice in the face of the crimes committed by some African rulers. A fair trial for Hissène Habré would strike a blow against the cycle of impunity in which leaders brutalize their citizens, pillage their treasuries, and then when their time is up move next door to join their bank accounts. It would also be a tremendous precedent to show that African courts can deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa.
Reed Brody, Spokesperson and Counsel with Human Rights Watch, has worked with Hissène Habré's victims for 13 years.