A significant step in the fight against impunity for African leaders

Published: 28 Jul 2015
By: Djibril Balde

For years, people have wondered if Hissène Habré would ever be brought to justice. Therefore, the start of his trial in Dakar, Senegal on 20 July 2015 by the Extraordinary African Chambers marks an important turning point in the fight against impunity on the African continent. Hissène Habré has been indicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed between 1982 and 1990 following 19 months of investigation. This is the first time a former African head of state is being tried by the courts of another African country.

Upon the request of the African Union, Senegal has complied with its obligations, both under its own laws and international conventions that it has ratified, by developing a universal jurisdiction law that provides the framework for prosecuting Hissène Habré. Extraordinary African Chambers were installed and inaugurated in February 2013.

This trial is a historic event and a victory not only for the victims who fought for over 15 years, but also for the human rights organisations that have accompanied them. This trial is a solemn warning to other African leaders and heads of state, telling them to respect human rights and human dignity and to avoid committing mass atrocities in their efforts to access or remain in power at any cost. It is important to capitalise on this victory in order to build momentum in the fight against impunity on the continent.

So how did this trial come about? In January 2000, seven Chadians filed a complaint against Hissène Habré in Dakar. In February, a Senegalese judge charged him with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. But in March 2001, the Court of Cassation decided that Senegalese courts did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed outside the national territory. This started a long struggle to ensure that the cases were heard, including the filing of charges again Habre in Belgium, extradition hearings and finally a request from the AU to Senegal to try Habre “on behalf of Africa”.

Today this trial constitutes a major challenge for the Extraordinary African Chambers and Senegal to guarantee a fair and a just trial, in which the rights of the defense will be respected. It will also be a challenge to ensure that victims can be present at the trial and can testify without any pressure. Approximately 4,445 victims have petitioned to participate in the case as parties civiles, represented by a group of lawyers under the leadership of a Chadian.

It has been unfortunate – if not surprising – to hear Hissène Habré saying that he does not acknowledge the judges and Extraordinary African Chambers, that he considers them to be illegitimate and illegal, and has decided to adopt a strategy of non-cooperation with the court. He has asked his lawyers not to come to defend him in court. Worse, in the courtroom he said: “Down with the traitors of Africa! Down with imperialism! It’s neo-colonialism, it’s a game of rotten Senegalese politicians.”

In a press interview, the Senegalese minister of justice defended Senegal’s actions: “the trial of Hissène Habré has marked an important turning point in the judicial history of the continent. And it is Africa that asked Senegal to organise the trial.” This sentiment was echoed by a Chadian activist with whom I spoke: “it is an event that the victims have been waiting for a long time and this is a crucial step towards justice in favor of victims of atrocity committed under Hissène Habré’s regime. Hissène Habré has to face 100 victims who will testify before the judges.” His trial is also part of a larger effort to seek justice. Last March, seven accomplices of Hissène Habré were sentenced to life imprisonment, including Saleh Yunus, the first director of the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DSS), the political police of Hissène Habré.

The attorneys appointed by the court have now requested 45 days to study the case in order to prepare Habre’s defense. The request was granted by the judge who postponed the case until 7 September 2015. However, if Habré believes that he is innocent, he must prove his innocence by confronting victims and allowing his lawyers to present a defense on his behalf. Many observers believe that Habré does not want to face his accusers and his victims. But he must do so, and the court must ensure a fair and impartial hearing of both sides.

If, at the end of the trial, it is proven that Habré is guilty, urgent measures should be taken on behalf of his victims, who have the right to compensation under international human rights and humanitarian law.

As another Chadian exile said “the silence of Habré at the court is a guilty silence, because he knows that, what they accuse him of is fact. He knows that he was in the center of all the decisions that were taken and was aware of everything that was happening in Chad during his reign. He oppressed his people for no reason and nothing can justify the abuses of Hissène Habré. Therefore, he must face his accusers and defend himself. ”

This case offers hope for the first time in a long time to African victims that African justice mechanisms can provide solutions. But their hopes constitute a heavy burden for the Extraordinary African Chambers. The Senegalese government and the international community must support this mechanism to ensure that it has the tools that it needs to succeed. And activists and governments must build on this success to further narrow the spaces for impunity in Africa.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Justice and Accountability
Regions: Western Africa, Senegal
Type: IRRI Blog