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African Union played vital role in Habré arrest

It is a message to Africa's few remaining dictators: You can run but you can't hide forever from an increasingly sophisticated international justice ­system.

Last week Chad's former leader, Hissène Habré, was arrested and put behind bars in Senegal and is now awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. He is accused of torturing and killing tens of thousands of Chadians during his reign of terror between 1982 and 1990.

The man who was instrumental in bringing him to justice, Human Rights Watch counsel and spokesperson Reed Brody, told the Mail & Guardian Habré's arrest was a ­victory for the victims "who never gave up hope".

The long legal battle to get Habré to stand trial, which started in January 2 000, comes at a time when the African Union is being criticised for its stance on how to deal with powerful leaders accused of human rights violations.

The AU is at loggerheads with the International Criminal Court over the arrest warrant against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and the indictment of former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, and says it is exploring ways to try leaders "on African soil".

Many see this as unwillingness by Africa to try its own. However, the AU played a crucial role in getting Senegal to try Habré.

Cold War-style situation
Habré's arrest took more than a decade to happen – mostly because Senegal, where he has lived in exile since 1990, argued that it didn't have the legal capacity or the financial means to try him locally.

But experts say much of the delay was because Habré's powerful friends put a great deal of pressure on former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade not to have him arrested.

During his rule, Habré was supported by the United States and France in a classic Cold War-style situation, where it was well known what he and his feared secret police were doing to the Chadian people. But it suited Western powers to support him, mainly because he was seen as a buffer against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who occupied northern Chad in the 1980s.

Brody says he is still very worried about the fate of victims and witnesses living in Chad who would be called on to testify in Habré's trial.

"Some of my friends who were with me on this journey [against Habré] died on the way," he said. "Some as a result of the torture or from natural causes in the last 22 years since he left power. It's a shame they won't see him go to trial."

Brody compares the Habré case with that of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet because for months the victims and their families – as in the Pinochet case – organised the lists of victims and gathered the information necessary to lay a charge against Habré.

Horrendous accounts of torture by near asphyxiation in the infamous Piscine – a swimming pool that was closed up and used to house prisoners – as well as cases of gassing and electrocution were compiled by the victims.

Ownership of the process
"This process was different from those held in The Hague because victims are themselves the architects of the process rather than some big institution telling them what to do," said Brody. "It is empowering and inspiring."

Ottilia Maunganidze, senior researcher at the International Crimes in Africa division of the Institute for Security Studies, says the role of Senegal and the AU was crucial.

"This is the first time Africa has chosen to fully take ownership of the process," she said.

For Senegal to host the trial required a change in the Constitution to allow national courts to try crimes against humanity, which was done in 2008.

This was only after Wade, who changed his tune on the Habré case many times, referred the process to the AU. He had been under pressure for some time to try Habré or extradite him to Belgium, where victims also brought a case against him.

Many thought the AU would be a dead end, given that many of its members are also accused of grave wrongdoing in their countries. However, the AU took up the case and last year signed a co-operation agreement with Senegal for the setting up of a special court and paving the way for his arrest and trial. Senegal's new president, Macky Sall, was instrumental in speeding up the process, says Maunganidze.

She says the trial could create a precedent, although in many countries, like South Africa, laws in this case wouldn't apply retrospectively.

"It could be done, but through an international tribunal. This is a great reminder to people that if you think you've gotten away with it, justice can catch up to you," she says.

The Habré trial is not expected to start before at least the middle of next year, but she says this is not unusual.

"This week someone was acquitted for participating in the Rwanda genocide, which was 19 years ago."

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Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.

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