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Chad Rights Victims Expect Justice From African Leaders

  • Joe Bavier

The annual summit of the African Union is getting underway Saturday in Banjul, with most attention likely to focus on the conflicts in Darfur and Somalia. But one small group of Chadians will be sitting on the sidelines of the meeting, waiting for justice.

Ismael Abdallah has waited for 17 years for justice. Rounded up with thousands of members of his Zaghawa ethnic group in 1989, he spent 22 months prison.

"I was in a room crammed full of Zaghawas," he says, recounting the scene in one of Chad's most notorious prisons, La Picine. "There were too many of us. But the worst form of torture was slow starvation. They didn't give us food. They didn't treat us."

Following the overthrow of President Hissene Habre in 1990, Chadians set out to shed light on perhaps the darkest period of their history. A truth and reconciliation committee implicated Habre of tens of thousands of political killings during his eight years in power.

"It was enough just be a member of the wrong ethnic group," Abdallah says. "Or to be a member of the opposition. Or even just to travel abroad. When you got back," he says, "you were arrested at the airport. They said you were a spy."

Human rights activists says he was responsible for at least 1,200 deaths in Chad's prisons alone.

In 2002, Chad lifted the former ruler's immunity from prosecution. But so far, Habre has yet to face justice and claims to have had no knowledge of crimes committed during his time in office.

Senegal, where he has lived since fleeing Chad has repeatedly refused to have Habre extradited. And last year, after a judge in Belgium issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, it handed the case over to the African Union.

The African heads of state are meant to treat the subject during their two day annual summit. But lawyer Reed Brody, who has worked on the case for Human Rights Watch, says there are problems.

"Its unfortunate that it will go directly to the heads of state, who may take a political decision, who may take a decision that doesn't correspond to what is needed, and who may end up taking a path that won't lead to justice. And that would be very unfortunate," said Brody.

Brody added he is worried by a lack of progress surrounding the Habre case. The A.U. established a panel of judicial experts to review the facts. But the identities of panel members were not released. And their report on how, where, and, even, if Habre should be tried has not been made public.

However, outside the summit venue Friday, a lawyer for Habre, El Hadj Diouf, spoke to journalists holding a photocopy of what he said was the panel's report.

He said the report rejects the option of extradition to Belgium. It opted first for a trial in Senegal, but if that fails Habre could be brought to back to Chad, something seen as an impossibility for both the former president's supporters and opponents. Finally, if the other solutions fail, a special ad hoc court, similar to that established in Sierra Leone, could try him.

Abdallah says he remains optimistic, and the time when African leaders could commit crimes in total impunity has come to an end.

"There's a club of former heads of state that is fighting not to be judged," he says. "We think that they will get nowhere. The world has become a world that is very open, cultivated, and well informed, and we think the truth will win out."

The report of the panel of experts simply contains recommendations, and African leaders are under no obligation to follow them. The African Union summit in Banjul finishes up on July 2.

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