A human rights lawyer deeply involved in the case against former Chadian president Hissene Habre has expressed concern that Senegal may not have the political will to prosecute the accused human rights violator. Reed Brody, a lawyer for international rights group Human Rights Watch, says the Habre case is a test for the entire African justice system. Brent Latham has more from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.
Human rights lawyer Reed Brody, special counsel to New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, has expressed consternation over the lack of progress by the government of Senegal in the case against former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre. His comments follow a statement this week by a Senegalese minister who said a trial may not take place.
Habre has been in exile in Senegal since being removed from power in Chad, and is currently under house arrest in Dakar awaiting trial on numerous counts of human rights violations.
Earlier this week the Senegalese Minister of Justice Me Madicke Niang, who has also served as Habre's lawyer in the past, said the trial in Senegal may not go forward, after Habre was convicted and sentenced to death by a Chadian court last week. Niang said the Senegal trial could not proceed if Habre had been judged on the same evidence in Chad. Brody says the statement was ill-advised.
"As the Chadian minister of justice has made very clear over the last couple of days, one thing has nothing to do with the other. Habre was convicted in absentia in Chad for alleged support of the rebels who tried to overthrow the government this year. In Senegal he has been accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture from the 1980s," he said.
Senegal's justice minister, Niang, has since clarified his comments, saying the Senegal trial should be able to proceed if the facts it is based on are unique. But Brody says the episode suggests a lack of political will in Senegal to put Habre on trial. He says Senegal has moved slowly in the eight years since Habre was arrested in Dakar, and that Habre benefits from sympathizers inside the Senegalese government.
"There is no secret that Hissene Habre has used the millions of dollars that he stole from the Chadian treasury to build himself a network of protection and support in Senegal," said Brody. "There are people in Senegal that have always opposed bringing Habre to justice, and I think it is important for the justice minister in Senegal, who used to be Habre's lawyer, and the president of Senegal to step up and say we are going forward with this."
Habre came to Dakar after being deposed in 1990. He has denied any wrongdoing, or having stolen money from Chadian state coffers.
Following international efforts, Brody says Senegal's government now has an obligation under international law to prosecute Habre. He says Senegalese actions in this case also have implications for justice across Africa.
"This case is also a test for African justice. We have heard a lot of voices in Africa complain that international justice is picking on Africans," said Brody. "And this case is an opportunity to show that African courts can deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa. Because you cannot criticize international justice for taking up international cases if African courts themselves are not going to bring justice."
Should Senegal fail to prosecute or extradite Habre, Belgium is likely to take the African nation to the International Court of Justice for violation of the U.N.'s torture convention, Brody says.
Habre is accused of orchestrating the murder of over 40,000 Chadians. Human rights and victims groups are anxious to see the former president tried, saying that they also have evidence that Habre masterminded the systematic torture of thousands during his eight-year rule.