Will the trial of former Chadian ruler, Habré, finally take place? The Senegalese authorities take a major step forward

Published: 3 Aug 2012
By: Djibril Balde

The President of the Republic of Senegal, Macky Sall, speaking on July 15 at the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, reiterated his commitment to getting the trial of former Chadian President underway before the end of 2012. As the Senegalese Minister of Justice said during a press briefing, “this trial will be the first. For the first time Africa will judge a former African Head of State. We want a standard trial, which meets international standards.”

Hisséne Habré ruled Chad from 1982-1990 when he was overthrown by current President Idriss Deby and fled to Senegal. His reign was marked by political assassinations, systematic torture and ethnic discrimination. Habré has been accused of 40,000 deaths and thousands of cases of torture, and there is plenty of evidence against him. Files have been discovered that relate to the work of his political police, the Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS). They contain the names of 1,208 people who were killed under his watch, and 12,321 victims of other human rights violations. And in 2000, victims of his regime provided Senegalese justice officials with documents containing detailed information on cases of killings and torture.

In February 2000, Habré was charged by a Senegalese judge with complicity in crimes of torture. But the Senegalese courts declared themselves  incompetent to judge acts that were committed outside the country. Abdoulaye Wade, the former president of Senegal, promised several times to facilitate the trial of Habré but failed to do so during his 12 years in power. He also refused to extradite Habré to Belgium, where Chadian victims had filed a complaint in September 2005 and where a Belgian judge had indicted Habré and requested his extradition. In response to the extradition request, Abdoulaye Wade turned to the AU, which called on Senegal to prosecute Habré “on behalf of Africa” in July 2006. Unfortunately that decision was never implemented.

However, the arrival of Macky Sall as the president of Senegal has given hope to the victims of Habré that finally justice will be done. But for this to happen, it is crucial that President Macky respect his promises to ensure that the trial of Habré actually takes place. In particular, President Macky should not be scared of a strong Muslim brotherhood in Senegal to which Habré belongs. This brotherhood has supported Habré since his arrival in Senegal in 1990 and opposes his trial. However, President Macky should remember that the Chadian victims are still waiting for justice over 20 years after Habré’s fall. Justice must be done – and must be seen to be done – to call to account Habré and other perpetrators of atrocities during his reign and for the benefit of Chadian victims.

Habré’s trial would send a very strong message to those who commit massive human rights violations, torture and other inhuman practices, and who think they are immune because they hold positions of power. The trial would also contribute to strengthening the work of human rights organisations that are fighting injustice and impunity in Africa. It will also encourage African leaders to respect the regional and international instruments to which their countries are signatories such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Hilary Clinton, who visited Senegal last week, described Senegal as a beacon of hope in Africa. But can it stand up to this accolade?

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