Bring Hissène Habré to justice

The African Union will this month decide the fate of one of the continent’s most brutal dictators—Hissène Habré of Chad. Habré‘s victims, who have been seeking to bring him to justice for 15 years, are counting on South Africa and other democratic countries not to let him slip away again.

Habré was first indicted six years ago in Senegal, where he lives in exile, and charged with crimes against humanity and torture during his 1982 to 1990 rule. When Senegal’s courts, after political interference, ruled that he could not be tried for crimes allegedly committed abroad, Habré‘s victims looked elsewhere and found a Belgian judge willing to take the case, under that country’s long-arm ‘universal jurisdiction” law.
Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade agreed to hold Habré in Senegal and promised that ‘if a country capable of organising a fair trial—there is talk of Belgium—wants him, I do not foresee any obstacle”.

The Belgian judge and a police team worked on the case for four years, conducting a historic investigation in Chad where they interviewed victims and accomplices and were taken by ex-prisoners to their old cells and to grave sites. They also brought back and pored over tens of thousands of documents from Habré‘s political police, which mention a total of 12 321 abuse victims, including 1 208 persons who died in Habré‘s jails—one set up in the presidential compound. Finally in September, the Belgian judge charged Habré with crimes against humanity and Belgium asked Senegal for his extradition.

But President Wade, saying that Habré‘s extradition was an ‘African question”, asked the AU summit, which meets on January 23 and 24 in Sudan, to recommend ‘the competent jurisdiction” for the trial of Habré.

If the goal is justice, the AU’s choice is easy. After four years of work, Belgium is ready and able to hear the case and offers the most concrete, realistic and timely option for ensuring that Habré is able to respond to the charges against him with all the guarantees of a fair trial. Indeed, the Chadian government has consistently supported Habré‘s extradition to Belgium, inviting the Belgian judge to Chad and even going so far as to waive Habré‘s state of immunity so that he could be tried in a ‘neutral forum”.

Some have argued that it would be an insult to ‘African dignity” if a former African leader such as Habré were sent to Europe to be tried. We would also, of course, have preferred to see Habré tried in Africa—that is why we filed the case against him in Senegal six years ago.

But the sad fact is that Senegal refused to prosecute Habré when it had the opportunity to do so. Chad could not guarantee him a fair trial. And in the 15 years since Habré was ousted, no other African country has asked for his extradition. There has been talk of creating a new ‘African tribunal” to try Habré, but that would entail enormous political will, more years of delay and costs of at least $100-million. Habré‘s victims have already been waiting 15 years to find a court to hear the case and many of the survivors—including two of those who filed the case in Senegal six years ago—have already died.

It is true that Belgium has a regrettable colonial past, but it had nothing to do with Habré or Chad and it has an independent judiciary willing to give Habré—and his victims—a fair trial. Unless they want the case to become a bit of political football, South Africa and its allies should allow justice to take its course. After 15 years, the AU must finally give Habré‘s victims their day in court—in Belgium.

Souleymane Guengueng is vice-president of the Chadian Association of Victims of Crime and Political Repression. Reed Brody, Counsel with Human Rights Watch, coordinates the victims’ legal team

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