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Belgium seeks UN court ruling on ‘Africa’s Pinochet’

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-03-12

In a bid to end a protracted struggle to get former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to face justice, Belgium has asked the International Court of Justice to order Senegal to either try or extradite "Africa’s Pinochet".

The campaign to get former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to face justice has been dubbed an "interminable political and legal soap opera". But this time, the end may just be in sight – at least that’s what Habre’s now-aging victims hope.

On Monday, Belgium asked the UN’s highest court to order Senegal to either put the former Chadian president on trial or to extradite him to face charges of torture and crimes against humanity.

In the first public hearing on Belgium’s bid to get Habre to face justice, lawyers representing Belgium at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague told judges the case was about “taking a stand against impunity in the most serious crimes in international law”.

Habre is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture in Chad during his repressive 1982 to 1990 reign. According to Chad’s Truth Commission, the Habre regime produced more than 40,000 victims.

The 69-year-old former president has been living in a luxury villa in Senegal's capital, Dakar, since he was overthrown by current Chadian President Idriss Deby.

'Africa’s Pinochet’ case exposes Africa’s weaknesses

For more than two decades, international rights groups as well as an association of Habre’s victims have sought to bring “Africa’s Pinochet” to justice in a case that has come to represent Africa’s failure to prosecute its former leaders and its penchant for passing the buck and the bill on to the West.

The latest act in the Habre legal soap opera opened Monday with Belgium calling on the ICJ to rule either in favour of the Chadian former dictator’s extradition or his trial in Senegal.

Belgium took up the case in 2005 under its "universal jurisdiction" law based on complaints by survivors of Habre’s regime, some of whom have Belgian citizenship. But Senegal has blocked four extradition requests since 2005.

Over the next few weeks, representatives of Belgium and Senegal will place their case before the ICJ. The international court has scheduled six hearings, until March 21. On Thursday, Senegal's representatives are expected to open their case. Judges are likely to take months to reach a decision. ICJ rulings are binding.

‘One obstacle after another’

The long history of the 69-year-old’s legal case includes a slew of charges, indictments, and extradition requests in three countries, which led South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to dub it an "interminable political and legal soap opera" – one that requires tabulated chronologies to navigate the labyrinths of international law.

The crux of the “legal soap opera” has been Senegal’s reluctance to bring Habre to justice, leading Amnesty International to criticise the West African nation for its “contempt for the rule of law” and its “culture of impunity”.

Last year, after the African Union urged Senegal to either prosecute or extradite Habre, Senegalese authorities surprised the international community by announcing that they would extradite Habre back to his homeland, Chad.

The decision sparked an uproar among activists. In an interview with FRANCE 24.com in July 2011, Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who has spearheaded the case for the past 11 years, called it “close to the worst option”.

Activists warned that Habre would not get a fair trial at home and Habre’s lawyer said his client has maintained that "he would only return to Chad in a coffin”.

Following the international outcry, Senegal backtracked on its threat to deport Habre.

Human rights experts such as Brody have long maintained that Senegal has “persistently thrown up one obstacle after another” in an attempt to drag out the case. This included attempts to get the international community to commit $40 million – a sum that Senegal estimated would be the cost of the trial, but which legal experts said was a bloated figure.

Finally, at an international donors conference in Dakar in November 2010, donors came up with more than $11 million to cover the cost of Habre’s trial.

For his part, Senegal’s longstanding leader, President Abdoulaye Wade, has maintained that he would like to get rid of the Habre case.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 and RFI (Radio France International) in December 2010, Wade maintained that, “"Frankly, I regret accepting [the case] because I have not found the support I was looking for [from the international community]." Wade went on to state, "I will return [Habré] somewhere. I'm telling you very clearly: I will get rid of this.” [Click here for the interview in French.]

But that was over a year ago and Hissene Habre has still not faced justice.

Date created : 2012-03-12

  • JUSTICE

    Hissene Habre's elusive trial: an African 'legal soap opera'

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  • SENEGAL

    Senegal calls off extradition of Hissene Habre to Chad

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