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Florent Geel, Assane Dioma Ndiaye and Dobian Assingar
09 Jul 2015 13:30
Former Chad president Hissene Habre (right) leaves a court in Dakar escorted by a Senegalese policeman on November 25 2005. (Aliou Mbaye, Reuters)
December 1990 saw the overthrow of Chadian dictator Hissène Habré by his chief of staff, the current president of Chad, Idriss Déby Itno.
Habré fled to
Senegal in the presidential plane with $28-million worth of Chadian public
money. He spent eight blood-soaked years in power, marked by 40 000 summary
executions and forced disappearances.
Almost 200 000 people suffered torture at
the hands of the dreaded secret police, the Documentation and Security
Directorate (Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité - DDS).
Twenty-five years later, the aging dictator will be held to account by his victims before an independent court, the Extraordinary African Chambers, set up
in Senegal with the support of the African Union.
The court was established in
February 2013 following two decades of impunity for Habré.
The extraordinary legal and human saga began in 1999, when the first victims of
Habré’s regime came to see us. One man in particular, Souleymane Guengueng, had
buried hundreds of files in his garden, which detailed men and women tortured
and killed by the dreadful DDS agents in the regime’s secret prisons. These
remarkable archives revealed the secrets of a paranoid, ultra-hierarchical and
bloody regime, which eliminated thousands of individuals, regardless of
religion, ethnicity or age, solely to maintain its power.
Having sought justice in Chad, Belgium and Senegal, the victims, with the support of our organisations, staked their hopes on Senegal, a country which
had sheltered Hissène Habré for 20 years, being democratically mature enough to
allow for his trial. The African Union also played a considerable part,
demanding in 2006 that Senegal put Habré on trial “in the name of Africa”. In
June 2013, the new Senegalese president Macky Sall gave the International
Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) his word that he would do so and, more
importantly, kept that promise.
The referral on February 13 2015 of Habré to the Assize Chamber of the Extraordinary African Chambers for crimes against humanity, war crimes and
torture was the culmination of 19 months of judicial investigation and
opened the way to a fair trial which is due to take place in the presence of
the victims and their defence lawyers beginning on July 20 2015.
Desire for justice
This trial is important not only because it seeks to bring Habré to justice, but it also has immense symbolic importance for Africa as a whole. The trial is
in a way a response to the desire for justice on the continent. To Sudan, South
Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea,
not to mention the countries where Boko Haram is wreaking havoc, the message is
clear: crimes will not go unpunished and, even if it takes 20 years, Africa
will not forget its victims. It is no longer a question of foreign interference
or post-colonial justice, evoked when trials of autocrats take place in Europe
or before international courts. The trials of dictators, warlords and mass
criminals will now also take place in Africa.
However, by organising this trial, Senegal is, in effect, simply fulfilling its international obligations regarding the United Nations Convention against
Torture, which includes a clause requiring signatories to put those who commit
crimes of torture and are present on their territory on trial, even if the
individual involved or their victim is not a national of that country and the
crime was committed abroad. This principle of “universal jurisdiction”, or more
accurately extra-territorial jurisdiction, was accepted by 42 of the 45 African
states, when they signed the United Nations Convention against Torture. Senegal
is simply the first African state to implement it and to open the way to it
being applied in practice.
Our organisations and Legal Action Group have,
moreover, submitted a further complaint under “universal jurisdiction” to the
Senegalese judicial authorities, concerning a Congolese police officer involved
in the assassination in Kinshasa of two human rights workers, Floribert Chebeya
and Fidèle Bazana, in 2010. They were killed on the orders of the chief of
police at the time. This complaint is currently being examined by the
Senegalese criminal justice system.
While Senegal is leading the way, other countries wish to put justice and the fight against impunity for the most serious crimes at the centre of their
policymaking. Thus, on March 1 2015, the National Assembly of the Central
African Republic was called upon to create a Special Criminal Court, similar to
the Extraordinary African Chambers, composed of Central African magistrates and
magistrates from other African countries, responsible for judging the warlords
who have ravaged the country for the past two years.
Perhaps 2015 will be the year of major victories over impunity in Africa.
Perhaps the trial of Habré in Senegal will be followed by that of two former
presidents who seized power via a coup d’état, Aya Sanogo in Mali and Dadis
Camara in Guinea. Perhaps we will even see the trials of those responsible for
the post-election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Even if not all these
trials take place this year, 2015 will undoubtedly remain a key date in the
history of judicial independence in Africa.
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