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Victims of Former Chadian Leader's Rule Hope for Justice

  • Anne Look

Belgium has taken Senegal to the International Court of Justice for its failure to prosecute former Chadian leader Hissene Habré for crimes against humanity. Habré has been under house arrest in Senegal since 2000, but Senegalese authorities have refused to extradite him to Belgium.

Victims of the Chadian leader, such as Abdourahmane Gueye, have been waiting for years for justice. Gueye went to Chad 22 years ago on a business trip that would leave him on the brink of death.

Hissene Habré's political police accused Gueye and his colleague, Demba Gaye, of being Libyan spies. They confiscated the gold and valuables the Senegalese businessmen were delivering and imprisoned Gueye for six months.

Gueye says he lived in a dark cell without mats or blankets. The prisoners slept directly on the cement floor. Food was scarce, and he became sick. By the time he was released, he was gravely ill.

Gueye tried to ask questions of the other prisoners, but he says most did not even know why they had been jailed. He says it was widely known that once you had been stopped by the police, it was over for you.

Though Gueye did not suffer the brutal interrogation tactics the Habre regime was known for, he says the conditions were torture enough. As many as 100 prisoners were kept naked in a dark, hot, standing-room only cell and slept in shifts. Prisoners left their cells twice a day, once at 6 am to get water and again at 5 pm to get food, which was often rancid. When they were herded back into the cell, the guards sometimes had to push the mass of prisoners in to get the door to close.

Gueye was released after the intervention of then-Senegalese president Abdou Diouf, but it was too late for his friend Demba Gaye who died sometime during his imprisonment in Chad.

Now 62 years old, Gueye fears he will die waiting for the trial to begin, like many of Habré's victims already have, or worse, that Hissene Habre will die and the case will simply disappear.

In 2006, the African Union called on Senegal to try Hissene Habré on behalf of Africa. Since then, Senegal has adopted laws that would allow it to do so. But the case is at a standstill.

Hoping to jump-start the case, Gueye and 13 other victims filed complaints last September with a Senegalese prosecutor accusing Habré of crimes against humanity and torture. But authorities say they will not act on the complaints until Senegal receives international funding for the trial.

Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch in Belgium, says Senegal wants all $35 million of its proposed three-year budget up front, a demand the international community is reluctant to agree to, especially as Senegal has not offered a clear plan on how they will try Habré.

"The AU's credibility is on the line here because it was two-and-a-half years ago that they said to Senegal, prosecute Habre in the name of Africa. We will give you support, and Senegal has not started the prosecution and the African Union has given no support," he said.

Alioune Tine, the president of a Senegalese human rights organization that has been working on the Habré case, says. Senegal has been stalling and the problem goes much deeper than a budgetary dispute. He says Senegal hasn't really demonstrated the political will to try Hissene Habré. He says there is a difference between adopting good laws and making use of them.

Gueye says he would be proud if his country judged Hissene Habré.

It would really be something for Senegal. For the first time, he says, an African country would judge an African dictator.

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