Arusha, November 6, 2013 (FH) – The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Tuesday rejected a move by former Chadian president Hissène Habré to have criminal procedures against him suspended.

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Habré faces charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed during his presidency (1982 to 1990) and is due to go on trial before “Extraordinary African Chambers”, a sort of special tribunal set up under an agreement between Senegal and the African Union (AU).

Habré, who has been living in exile in Senegal for 22 years, was arrested at his residence in Dakar on June 30 this year and charged shortly afterwards.

On April 23, his lawyers had filed a request to the ECOWAS Court of Justice to “order the immediate suspension of activities, investigations, and prosecutorial acts undertaken or to be undertaken within the framework of the application of the Chambers’ statute”.  They argued that the Extraordinary African Chambers had no legitimacy and could not guarantee Habré a fair trial.  In its decision issued in Abuja, Nigeria, the ECOWAS court held that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the application because the Extraordinary African Chambers were established under a treaty between Senegal and the African Union. It further dismissed the underlying request.

Back in 2010, the ECOWAS Court of Justice issued a decision saying it deemed that Habré should be tried by a “special ad hoc procedure of an international character.” In its latest decision it recognized that the Extraordinary African Chambers had been created to comply with its 2010 decision.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has long fought to have the former dictator brought to justice, said the ECOWAS Court’s decision “averts a potential obstacle in the path to justice for the long suffering victims of his rule”.

Documents from the Directorate of Documentation and Security, Habré’s political police, obtained by Human Rights Watch in 2001, revealed the names of 1,208 people who were executed or died in detention and 12,231 victims of various human rights abuses.

“The ECOWAS court decision means the case against Habré can go forward,” said Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody. “A fair trial for Habré would be a turning point for justice in Africa.”

This decision could put an end to the defence boycott of proceedings since Habré was charged in July.