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Senegal Says It Remains Committed to Try Former Chadian leader

Former Chadian President Hissène Habré (file)

Senegal has said it wants all $38 million of the trial's proposed three-year budget up front, a demand the international community is reluctant to agree to, especially because Senegal has not offered a clear plan on how it will conduct the trial.

Senegal says it remains committed to trying former Chadian leader Hissène Habré for crimes against humanity, but will not move forward until it receives the entire $38 million trial budget from the international community. Habré remains under house arrest in Dakar.

Former Chadian President Hissène Habré has been under house arrest in Senegal since 2000. He fled to Senegal after being deposed in 1990 and has since been accused of crimes against humanity and thousands of political killings and cases of torture during his eight years in power.

In 2006, the African Union called on Senegal to try Habré in the name of Africa. Since then, Senegal has adopted laws that would allow it to do so, but the case is at a standstill. Many doubt whether Senegal has the political will to try the former Chadian leader.

But Senegal Foreign Minister Madické Niang said this week in Dakar that negotiating a final budget and securing the funds from international donors are the only roadblocks remaining.

Niang says the trial will begin immediately after the total amount of the budget is collected. He says all of the preparations have been made. The will of Senegal to organize the trial, he says, is unwavering. He says it is in the best interests of Africa the trial take place in the best conditions and that any judgment be fair and just.

"Budgetary demands"

Senegal has said it wants all $38 million of the trial's proposed three-year budget up front, a demand the international community is reluctant to agree to, especially because Senegal has not offered a clear plan on how it will conduct the trial.

Niang, who was Habré's defense attorney before being made Senegal's justice minister and now foreign affairs minister, said Senegal is working with the European Union and the African Union to hammer out a final budget.

Reed Brody is legal counsel for Human Rights Watch in Belgium, which took Senegal to the International Court of Justice in 2009 for its failure to prosecute Habré.

Brody says Senegal's budgetary demands are excessive, including money to bring witnesses to Dakar and a third of the budget to reconstruct a courthouse.

"We have the documents from Hissène Habré's political police, the roadmap, the names of over 12,000 people who were in jail, over 800 death certificates, over 1,200 documents that were sent to Hissène Habré about the fate of over 800 prisoners. So, it is a trial that can be carried out based on the documents of his own political police, on the testimony of who those who were working with Habré and of course with victims and other witnesses, but it does not need to be so expensive," he said.

Brody says Habré fled Chad in 1990 with millions of dollars stolen from the Chadian treasury. "Unfortunately Habré has used his connections and used his money to build himself a whole network of protection here [in Senegal] that makes bringing him to trial appear to be so hard," he said.

Opinion shifting

But head of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, Alioune Tine, says popular opinion in Senegal is shifting in favor of trying Hissène Habré, largely thanks to a documentary shown several times on Senegalese television since its release in 2009.

The hour-long film, called Hissène Habré: The Hunt for a Dictator, was made by French journalist, Florent Chevolleau, with French network, Canal Plus. The film shows Chadians digging up the remains of unidentifiable detainees in mass graves and interviews with survivors of prisons operated by Habré's political police.

Those victims detail brutal torture techniques, including electrocution and beatings. Small cells, they said, were packed with as many as 30 prisoners in the scorching heat. One survivor said guards often took days to remove the decomposing bodies of prisoners who had died of asphyxiation. Records presented in the film show as many as 30 prisoners dying a day in one such prison.

Senegalese human rights activist Tine says there was a time when Senegalese had a certain sympathy for Habré. He says they saw Habré as a good Muslim, who often went to the mosque to pray. But, Tine says, when the film came out and Senegalese saw the mass graves and heard the victims' stories, they were completely shocked and changed.

Celebrating 50 years of independence this month, Senegal has called for an African renaissance and assumed a leadership role in the quest of a politically unified Africa.

But Tine says, in order to have an African renaissance, you have to actively combat impunity. He says African heads of state should distance themselves completely from their counterparts who have committed serious crimes. He says that is the way to set things right for a new generation.

Those working on the case in Senegal say it could set a landmark legal precedent of African courts judging African rulers on African soil.

In 2008, Mr. Habré filed a complaint with the court of the Economic Community of West African States to block his trial for crimes against humanity in Senegal, citing violations of his rights. The ECOWAS court ruled in November 2009 that victims may not take part in those proceedings, but has not yet determined whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case.