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The Trial of Hissène Habré: A Turning Point for Justice in Africa?

After a long wait, Chad's former dictator will be tried in a court in Senegal. If the trial is fair and effective, we could soon be talking about the "Habré precedent".
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In Chad's capital of N'Djamena. Photograph by afcone.

22 years after Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad, was overthrown and fled to Senegal, he is finally scheduled to face prosecution for brutality against his own people. Today, Senegal inaugurates the Extraordinary African Chambers within the Senegalese judicial system to investigate crimes committed during Habré’s rule.

Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture during his presidency, from 1982 to 1990. In 2000, inspired by the London arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, a group of prison survivors filed charges against Habré in Dakar. Although a Senegalese judge indicted Habré on charges of crimes against humanity and torture, the former Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, found one pretext after another to delay Habré's reckoning, turning the case into what Desmond Tutu described as an “interminable political and legal soap opera”.

Habré’s victims and their supporters had to run an obstacle course to keep the case alive. When, following President Wade’s interference, Senegalese courts refused to entertain the case, the victims filed suit in Belgium, whose long-arm jurisdictional law allow its courts to hear foreign atrocity cases. When Wade threatened to expel Habré from Senegal, they took the case to the United Nations Committee against Torture, which ordered Senegal not to let Habré leave the country other than by extradition. When Senegal refused Belgium’s extradition request, and then stalled for years on implementing an African Union mandate to put Habré on trial in Senegal, Belgium came to the victims’ rescue by taking the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague.

Two events finally produced a decisive breakthrough in 2012. In March, Macky Sall defeated Wade to become president of Senegal. Sall, who had earlier expressed his embarrassment at Senegal’s handling of the case, vowed to bring Habré to justice. In July, the ICJ ruled that Senegal had to prosecute Habré “without further delay” if it did not extradite him to face trial. By that time, Senegal and the African Union were already working on the plan to create the Extraordinary African Chambers.

Setting the Habré precedent

As le Monde headlined after the African Union and Senegal reached agreement on the court plan, “The Habré case marks a turning point for justice in Africa”. The Chambers’ statute provides the framework for a trial that could indeed be a transformative moment for African justice. It will be the first time that the courts of one African country try the leader of another country for alleged human rights crimes. The African Union, which played a key role in pressing for the trial, will appoint the presidents of the trial and appeals courts from other African countries. Even more important, Habré’s victims will participate in the case as civil parties, presenting witnesses and evidence, with the right to seek compensation.

The court’s funders – Chad, the European Union, the Netherlands, the African Union, the United States, Belgium, Germany, France and Luxemburg, in order of contributions – also approved a robust outreach and communications plan so that the trial can be broadcast in Chad. Indeed, one of the challenges now will be to make the trial fully accessible to the Chadian people so that it enhances their understanding of the past and advances the rule of law in that country today.

Pre-trial proceedings are scheduled to last 15 months, so Habré’s trial could begin as early as mid-2014, although delays are certainly possible. To ensure that the case does not drag on like many international trials, prosecutors should focus on a representative sampling of the worst crimes of the period for which the links to Habré are the strongest. Those links are provided by the thousands of uncovered documents of Habré’s political police which provide a road map to eight years of repression, as well as by the testimony of those who worked for Habré.

If fair, effective, and transparent, Habré’s trial would strike a blow against the cycle of impunity that has debilitated Africa. It would also be a tremendous precedent to show that African courts can deliver justice for crimes committed in Africa and might spur the AU to make real efforts to address crimes committed by African rulers. If this happens, the “Habré precedent” will become, like the “Pinochet precedent”, a source of inspiration and guidance for justice efforts in the region and around the world.

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