Arusha, December 7, 2013 (FH) – This year has seen important steps towards a trial of former Chadian president Hissène Habré, who is accused of mass atrocities under his rule. Such steps include the creation of a special court, indictment of the suspect and hearings by the judges of witnesses and victims.

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Habré has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990, when he was ousted by the current Chadian president Idriss Deby. In 2000, Habré was indicted for the first time in Senegal, but the Senegalese courts deemed they did not have jurisdiction and the victims then turned to the Belgian judicial authorities. Belgian courts have jurisdiction because some of the victims have Belgian nationality. In 2005, after four years of investigations, a Belgian judge indicted Habré, and Brussels asked for his extradition. After Senegal refused to extradite him and negotiations with the African Union had dragged on for three years, Belgium filed a complaint to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On July 20, 2012, the ICJ ordered Senegal to either bring Habré to justice without delay or extradite him.

Things started moving forward after the election of Macky Sall as new president of Senegal. Last February, Dakar inaugurated the “Extraordinary African Chambers”, set up under an agreement with the African Union. These chambers, composed of judges from Senegal and other African countries, are charged with bringing to justice those presumed most responsible for serious crimes committed in Chad from 1982 to1990, in other words, under Habré’s regime.

Political police

Habré was arrested at his home in Dakar on June 30, 2013, and charged two days later with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. “This is a first victory for the victims,” commented Jacqueline Moudeina, lawyer for the victims and president of Chadian human rights organization ATPDH. Human Rights Watch counsel  Reed Brody expressed a similar view. “The wheels of justice are turning,” said Brody, who has worked with Habré’s victims since 1999. “After 22 years, Habré’s victims can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hissène Habré, whose official website describes him as “liberator, saviour and builder of the Republic of Chad”, is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic use of torture while he was in power. Documents from the Directorate of Documentation and Security (DDS), 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. In a report released December 3, HRW said atrocities committed under Habré were systematic. “Habré wasn’t a distant ruler who was unaware of the massive atrocities carried out in his name,” said Olivier Bercault of Human Rights Watch, the principal author of the study. “We found that Habré directed and controlled the political police, who tortured and killed those who opposed him or those who simply belonged to the wrong ethnic group.” The 714-page study is entitled La Plaine des Morts (The Plain of the Dead).

After the former president was indicted, the judges got to work immediately. They conducted a first rogatory commission to Chad in August and September, and began a second one this week. According to a press release from the Extraordinary African Chambers, this commission will continue hearing victims and witnesses, allow the judges to use the archives of the DDS and to visit alleged sites of mass graves.

“Judicial farce”

However, Habré and his lawyers contest the legality and impartiality of the African Chambers, which they have decided to boycott. “We will not take part in the work of these Chambers because we do not consider them to be either independent or impartial,” François Serres, one of the lawyers, told Hirondelle. “The investigation is totally biased towards the prosecutor, who wants to protect President Deby. It’s a real judicial farce. We cannot participate.”

Even before Habré was arrested, his lawyers filed a request to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) asking it to halt all criminal procedures against their client. The Court said on November 5 that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the application. Victims’ lawyers said Habré had failed in yet another attempt to delay justice, but Habré’s lawyers refuse to see it as a defeat. They say that since they have filed an application to the Senegalese courts, it is now up to the Constitutional Court of that country to decide on the legality and conformity of the Extraordinary African Chambers. Habré’s wife Fatimé Raymonne  is also pinning her hopes on the Senegalese Constitutional Court. In a recent letter to President Sall she said that “the fate of President  Habré and of our family is not in the hands of the Extraordinary African Chambers funded by Deby but in those of the Senegalese judicial authorities,  the Constitutional Court”.