Human rights advocates, lawyers and ordinary citizens in Senegal are hoping their government will follow through on this week's arrest of Chad's 1980s leader, Hissene Habre, and extradite him for trial in Belgium. However, they say many obstacles remain for the former ruler, who has been living in exile in Senegal, to face charges of gross human rights violations, including ethnically-targeted torture and executions.
The leading human rights campaigner who has been trying to get Mr. Habre to face justice, Reed Brody, tells VOA this week's arrest in Dakar is just a preliminary step.
"It's only the beginning, he's been arrested pursuant to the Belgium international arrest warrant, there will now be an extradition procedure," he said. "We are hoping that the court and then President Wade agree to Habre's extradition."
The office of the public prosecutor at the Dakar Court of Appeals has until the middle of next week to decide whether to allow Mr. Habre's extradition. If it rules in his favor, it will then be up to Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade to agree by decree.
Mr. Wade has already said he will seek the advice of the African Union. He also said it was not a Senegalese problem, but an African one.
A Senegalese lawyer defending Chadian victims, Boukounta Diallo, says it will be no easy task.
He said there is a so-called union of present and former African leaders who resist bowing to outside pressure in ending impunity of heads of state in Africa.
Other wanted leaders are still in exile, like former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who lives in Nigeria.
Belgium has laws that, in certain instances, allows it to pursue crimes against humanity even if they are committed elsewhere. In this case, some of the plaintiffs are Chadians who reside in Belgium.
The human rights campaigner, Mr. Brody, who is renting a house with some of the Chadian victims in Dakar, accuses Mr. Habre of distributing ill-gotten wealth for protection. But Mr. Brody remains hopeful, justice will take precedence over greed.
"Habre came from Chad with millions of dollars that he stole from the Chadian treasury," he said. "He received apparently millions of dollars as well from Saddam Hussein. But I think the Senegalese judicial system and the president will rise above that and will allow the extradition to take its course. I don't think Senegal enjoys giving harbor and refuge to a dictator with so much blood on his hands, like Hissene Habre."
Mr. Habre has also given money to Islamic religious groups in Senegal, bringing internal pressure as well to resist his extradition. But one Senegalese resident, Urbain Tossou, told VOA he hopes his government can still set an example and start ending the African pattern of impunity by exile.
"He has to be extradited, no matter his friends here in Senegal, be it religious people or whatever," said Mr. Tossou. "You know Hissene Habre is a human being and Chadian people are human beings. We, African people, we need our presidents to be aware of their job. They have to do their job properly. They don't need to do whatever they want and then right after to be helped by a friendly country or another president just to live the way they want."
Another obstacle is Mr. Habre's health. The 63-year-old is now in custody in hospital, rather than in jail. Alleged poor health is often used by lawyers of former rulers to delay proceedings against them.
Still, Mr. Brody, who works for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, says the seriousness of the charges against him should prevail.
"The crimes with which Hissene Habre is accused are very serious crimes, thousands of political killings, systematic torture campaigns of ethnic cleansing against his own people," he said. "They are well documented, his own political police files that we uncovered give thousands of cases, 1,208 individuals who died in detention in N'Djamena, the names of over 12,000 victims. The law is very clear, Senegal has ratified the U.N. torture convention and is obliged to help bring a torturer to justice, not having done it in Senegal, they are obliged to extradite him to Belgium. Belgium offers a fair trial so I don't see why Senegal could not extradite him to Belgium."
Mr. Habre has been publicly discreet about the extradition since the possibility surfaced, but he has repeatedly denied charges of personal wrongdoing. Chad's government, which overthrew Mr. Habre in 1990, and now also faces growing dissension within the army, has welcomed his arrest, saying it hoped a sordid page of Chad's history could be turned.