News / Africa

Senegal to Try Chad's Ex-Dictator in Special Court

Former Chadian leader Hissene Habre, left, in Dakar, Senegal, in 2005 (file photo)
Former Chadian leader Hissene Habre, left, in Dakar, Senegal, in 2005 (file photo)
Jennifer Lazuta
Senegal will inaugurate a special court on Friday to try former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity.  Human Rights Watch says this will be the first time the leader of one country is prosecuted by the courts of another country.  

Senegal will make history on Friday as it moves one step closer to seeking justice against ex-Chadian dictator Hissène Habré.  After years of stalling, a special tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers, will finally become operational in Dakar.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that this will be the first time a world leader is prosecuted for crimes against humanity by the government 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.

Reed Brody is a lawyer for the New York-based rights group and has been working with Habre’s victims since 1999.  He says the inauguration of the court not only marks the start of a landmark case, but is a huge victory for the victims.

“The opening of this court has an enormous symbolic significance," said Brody. "These are victims who have been fighting for 22 years for their day in court.  And when the judges are sworn in and when the court is open for business, they will have that day in court.  And it means that the real business begins and that justice is on its way.”

Habré, who ruled Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 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 for the last 13 years.

The African Union (AU) ordered Senegal to try Habré on Africa’s behalf in 2006, but Brody says little progress was made under the former government of Abdoulaye Wade.

“In 10 months, Macky Sall and Aminata Toure and the government of Senegal have moved this case more than Abdoulaye Wade had done in 12 years.  Finally, the tenacity and the perseverance of the victims is being been rewarded by this government," he said.

Senegal’s National Assembly ratified an agreement with the AU to create the Extraordinary Chambers in December.  The government initially said the tribunal would be inaugurated by the end of 2012.

Souleymane Guengueng, a victim himself, is the founder of the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissène Habré.  He said it’s about time the former Chadian leader's trial got underway.

“This will be for us a great day, because for a long time we have been waiting for justice," said Guengueng. "We having been hoping for a long time, and now, with the new Senegalese government decision, we are hoping for this real justice.”

Friday’s inauguration of the Extraordinary Chambers will mark the start of a three-phase, 27-month process.  Brody said the initial, pre-trial investigations are expected to last 15 months.  This will be followed by a seven-month trial and five-month appeals process.

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