Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Trial of ex-Chadian President Habré: the problems of bringing leaders to justice

Think Africa Press examines Senegal's attempt to bring former Chadian leader Hissene Habre to court.
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The concept of international justice has been on trial over the last few years, as various attempts to bring leaders to book for their crimes have struggled on. Many of these cases involve African leaders: from former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, to Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir. There is hope that these cases will put pressure on Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.

Criticism of these efforts usually frames them as attempts by 'Westerners' to force justice on Africa. This is why the case of former Chadian leader Hissene Habre has been so interesting.

Habre has been accused of torture and crimes against humanity during his eight years in power. Although no figure has been independently verified, he is believed to be responsible for the deaths of up to 40,000 people. His notorious secret police are said done much of this killing in secret detention centres, one of which was underground. The fear he created is still felt in Chad where some of those buildings still stand as grim reminders.

Habre was first indicted for crimes against humanity in 2000 by a judge in Senegal. He had been living in exile there since being ousted by Idriss Deby ten years earlier. At the time, there was hope that the case would be heard in Africa.

Attempts to bring Habre to justice stalled when Senegal's jurisdiction for Chadian crimes was questioned. In addition, the Senegalese authorities claimed they couldn't afford to stage the case.

The possibility of a fully African trial began to fade when a victims' group turned to Belgium, a country with universal jurisdiction. However, Senegal refused to extradite Habre to Belgium, and the trial has not taken place.

Today in Chad, reports that Habre's trial may be a step closer, barely stir any of interest. The people here are used to a lack of accountability.

There was some good news in late 2010, when international donors in Dakar pledged 11 million dollars towards the cost of holding the trial in Senegal. One million of that will be released immediately by the African Union, while the rest comes from the EU, France, Germany and the Netherlands. This was a more conservative figure than the thirty five million dollars the Senegalese government had initially demanded.

Although this promise of funding commits Senegal to the trial, is not clear whether the Senegalese government has the political will to force the hearing through. A last-minute ruling by the regional body Ecowas decreed that a special court should be set up to try Habre. This could further complicate and delay the process. A situation which Hissene Habre, now enjoying his twentieth year of retirement, will surely welcome.

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