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Human Rights Lawyers Say Senegal Closer to Habre Trial

Lawyers for alleged victims of Chad's former president Hissane Habre say a law passed by Senegal's Parliament clears the way to put the former ruler on trial. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, human rights advocates say they have gathered extensive evidence documenting Habre's alleged crimes.

Human rights advocates and lawyers for Habre's alleged victims are hopeful after a law passed by Senegal's Parliament put in place the legal framework to bring the former Chadian president to trial for crimes against humanity.

A spokesman for the Senegal's Justice Ministry said the law, which still needs President Abdoulaye Wade's approval, is a constitutional reform which eliminates the statute of limitations on genocide and crimes against humanity. International observers say the law would be among the world's most stringent against such crimes.

With the new law in place, the most difficult obstacle to a trial has been removed, says Reed Brody, a prominent advocate of the case against Habre, and lawyer for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Now it's time for the Senegalese authorities to roll up their sleeves and begin this case," he said. "The victims have been waiting for a long time. Many of those who began this case eight years ago have died. So we're hoping now that all of the legal obstacles have been removed that the case can now move forward."

Habre has been accused of masterminding the systematic torture and murder of political opposition and the public during his eight years in power. He denies any wrong doing. In 2000, Habre was indicted in Senegal, where he has lived since being deposed in 1990. Senegal's courts said then they did not have jurisdiction and ruled that Habre could not be tried here.

Victims and their lawyers then turned to Belgium, which conducted an investigation and issued an international arrest warrant for Habre in 2005. When a Senegalese court refused to rule on extradition, Mr. Wade, a lawyer himself, turned to the African Union. The AU called on Senegal to try Habre itself "in the name Africa."

Brody says if Senegal moves quickly, proceedings in Dakar could begin within a year.

Senegal has asked for help funding the trial, which it says will cost around $43 million. Though some international donors, which include the EU and United States, have said that figure is exorbitant, Brody feels certain the costs will be arranged. He says the evidence against Habre is substantial.

"Money will not be a problem and neither will evidence," said Brody. "The case against Hissene Habre is very strong. Human Rights Watch has given to the Senegalese the thousands of documents of Hissene Habre's political police that we were able to discover."

"These are documents that provide a real road map to how Hissene Habre carried out the repression in Chad in the 1980's. Thousands of death certificates, lists of detainees, spying reports, the names of over twelve thousand victims of different crimes, including 1,208 people who died in detention, are found in these documents," he added.

Brody expressed concern that Habre may attempt to flee Senegal, since his legal status here is not clear. Jacqueline Moudeina, a Chad-based human rights lawyer representing some of the victims' families, says Senegal has an international obligation to prevent Habre from fleeing.

Moudeina says her clients and their families are anxious for the trial to move forward. She says her organization is also prepared to help the prosecutors by supplying evidence.

Though the process has been slow, Moudeina says, the families of the victims feel that they are one step close to justice.