Senegal made history on Friday with the inauguration of a special court to try former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch
described the official opening of this landmark case as a “transformative moment in African justice.”
After years of stalling, the special tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers, finally became operational in Dakar. Ciré Ali Bâ, the appointed administrator of the court, announced the opening of the Extraordinary Chambers at Dakar’s Palace of Justice.
Bâ said the ceremony is to show the world that the tribunal has effectively been started. He said that the court will now seek to find the truth behind the actions that took place under the rule of Hissène Habré between 1982 and 1990.
Human rights groups say it is about time.
Habre’s eight-year rule in Chad came to an end more than 22 years ago in a military coup. It has been nearly 13 years since he was first indicted in Senegal for crimes against humanity.
Clement Abaifouta, who was imprisoned as a student under Habré's regime for nearly four years, came to Senegal for the beginning of the tribunal. He said he has been waiting a long time for this day.
“This is a great day in my life. Up to 13 years, we were not moving," Abaifouta said. "He [Habré] came here in Senegal, but nothing moved. They [the Senegalese government] tried to do something, but it has not satisfied us [until now], because we have a goal. Our goal is to see Hissène Habré be judged for all he has done under his regime.”
Habré, who has been living under house arrest in Dakar since 1990, is accused of more than 40,000 political killings, systematic torture and human rights violations.
The African Union ordered Senegal to try Habré on Africa’s behalf in 2006, but little progress was made under the former government of Abdoulaye Wade.
It wasn’t until December 2012 that Senegal’s National Assembly finally ratified an agreement with the AU to create the Extraordinary Chambers.
Friday’s inauguration of the Extraordinary Chambers will allow judges to begin their pretrial investigations, which are expected to last 15 months.
Reed Brody is a lawyer for the New York-based Human Rights Watch who has been working with Habre’s victims since 1999. He said that while the inauguration marks a turning point in the case, there is still a long way to go.
“The victims have been fighting for the trial for 22 years," noted Brody. "Many of them who began the case have died. They’re all much older now than when they walked out of prison or when their relatives were killed. It’s now going to be another 15 long months [before the trial begins]. Hopefully Senegal can stick to that 15-month period and begin the trial while victims can still participate and take advantage of it.”
Brody said pretrial investigations 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 cases have all taken place under the jurisdiction of the international community, in a setting such as the Hague.