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Senegal, Chad Sign Agreement to Investigate Wartime Crimes

Former Chad dictator Hissène Habré, left,  seen as he leaves the court in Dakar, Senegal, Nov. 25, 2005.
Former Chad dictator Hissène Habré, left, seen as he leaves the court in Dakar, Senegal, Nov. 25, 2005.
Jennifer Lazuta
The justice ministers from Senegal and Chad have signed an agreement Friday that will allow Senegalese judges to carry out investigations in Chad on the alleged wartime crimes committed during the reign of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré. Human Rights Watch says this will “greatly facilitate” the work of the court and help move the long-delayed case forward.

Senegalese judges now have the ability to investigate the alleged wartime crimes of Hissène Habré within Chad, as part of the case being brought against him by a special tribunal in Dakar.

Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 until a 1990 military coup, is accused of more than 40,000 political killings, systematic torture and human rights violations. He has been living under house arrest in Dakar since 1990.

Reed Brody is a lawyer for the New York-based Human Rights Watch who has been working with Habre’s victims since 1999.

"Investigating and prosecuting crimes that happened 20 years ago in another country is a very complex task. And normally, judges from one country have to go through a very cumbersome task to collect evidence from another country. What this agreement does, is it basically allows the court to investigate in Chad, as if they were investigating in Senegal," he said.

Brody said the agreement also obliges the Chadian government to protect witnesses who testify both for and against Habré, and to hand over any documents the Senegalese judges may request.

Habré was first indicted in Senegal for crimes against humanity in the year 2000, but little progress was made under the former government of Abdoulaye Wade.

It was not until December 2012 that Senegal’s National Assembly finally ratified an agreement with the African Union to create a special tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers. The court became operational in Dakar in February and is now in the pre-trial investigation phase.

Human Rights Watch says thousands of documents of evidence, including a list with the names of more than 1,200 people who died while in detention, have already been collected by rights groups and the Belgium justice system over the years.

While these documents will be available for use during the trial, Brody said the Extraordinary Chamber’s investigating judges still need to be able to carry out their own work in Chad.

"It’s important for the integrity of the process that Senegalese judges see that evidence and weigh that evidence before them - the court that’s going to try Hissène Habré. And the judges are also looking for evidence that could exculpate Hissène Habré. So they need to look at witnesses who Hissène Habré wants to present," he said.

Brody said that with the signing of the agreement, judges can now travel to Chad themselves to speak with witnesses, visit former prisons and do whatever else is necessary to investigate the charges being brought against Habré.

He said pre-trial investigations are expected to last 15 months and will likely be followed by a seven-month trial and five-month appeals process.

This will be the first time the leader of one country is tried by the courts of another country. Previous trials have taken place either within their home country or under the jurisdiction of the international community, in a setting such as The Hague.

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