'Africa's Pinochet' arrested in Senegal

After more than a decade of living in comfortable exile, a deposed Chadian dictator nicknamed “Africa’s Pinochet” was arrested by police in Senegal on Tuesday.

Hissène Habré (63) who is accused of mass murder and the torture of political opponents, faces extradition to Belgium and a trial for crimes against humanity. He was ousted by the current Chadian president, Idriss Déby, in 1990. Two years later, a Chadian government inquiry accused Habré of 40 000 political killings and 200 000 cases of torture.

“This news fills me with joy and satisfaction,” said Clement Abaifouta, who spent four years in one of the dictator’s jails.
Abaifouta claims that during his imprisonment he was forced to bury the corpses of hundreds of inmates killed by beatings, electric shocks and disease caused by inhumane conditions.

The former president, who lived in a walled seaside villa in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, will be held in custody while a local judge decides whether to grant Belgium’s extradition request. Belgium has issued an international arrest warrant holding him responsible for atrocities committed by his political police while he was in power from 1982 to 1990.

Habré‘s lawyers have said their client had no knowledge that his police tortured and killed political prisoners.

The warrant was issued under Belgium’s universal jurisdiction law, which allows its judges to prosecute human rights violations no matter where they were committed. In 2000, a court in Senegal charged the former president with torture and crimes against humanity but later ruled that he could not be tried there. Habré‘s lawyer said at the time that the ruling meant that his client could not be extradited.

Human rights groups hailed yesterday’s arrest as a turning point for Africa. “Fear is finally changing sides,” said Boucounta Diallo, a lawyer representing alleged torture victims. “From now on, dictators will watch themselves.”

Aside from Rwanda where a global outcry has forced prosecutions, there is a poor track record of African dictators facing justice for their crimes. Idi Amin enjoyed a comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia, while the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam found refuge in an exclusive suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

“I think it’s important to break the cycle of impunity,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch. “Leaders have brutalised their countries, pillaged their treasuries and then just go abroad to live with their bank accounts.”

Brody, who has investigated the case for six years, said he found abandoned police files in Chad that detailed the deaths in detention of 1 208 people under Habré‘s rule. He said the former president enjoyed a luxurious life in exile. “It’s important to note that before he left Chad he allegedly took many millions of dollars. He emptied out the treasury.”

Chad, a former French colony, has recently begun exporting oil but it remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

One difficulty in pursuing ex-dictators is the clash between the desire for justice and realpolitik. In many cases, as with former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, only the assurance that they will be granted a safe haven enables brutal leaders to be removed without more bloodshed.

Fate of Africa’s despots

Charles Taylor Ruled Liberia 1989-2003. Has been in Nigeria since and faces arrest if he returns

Mengistu Haile Mariam President of Ethiopia, 1974-91. In Zimbabwe

Idi Amin Uganda’s president 1971-79. Died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003

Jean-Bedel Bokassa President of Central African Republic, 1966-79. Exiled in Cote d’Ivoire and France. Died in 1996

Joseph Desire Mobuto Sese Seko President of Zaire 1965-97. Died in exile in Morocco in 1997 - Guardian Unlimited Â

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