Arusha, May 6, 2015 (FH) – Chadian ex-president Hissène Habré’s trial before a special court in Senegal looks set to become reality, after judges were sworn in at the end of April to try his case. Habré is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.

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After being nominated by the African Union (AU), the judges were officially sworn in on April 23. Senegalese Justice Minister Sidiki Kaba, who presided the ceremony, said their swearing in was a “day of hope” for victims all over the world seeking justice.

“The judgment that will be handed down will be scrutinized by everyone and will set a precedent,” the Minister said, suggesting that the trial could start in June. 

According to Kaba, the funds needed to conduct the trial are now there. The provisional budget for all the proceedings is 8.5 million Euros, including contributions from countries and organizations. The biggest contributors are Chad (35.5 %) and the European Union (23 %).

AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dhlamini Zuma named Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso as president of the Extraordinary African Chamber that will conduct this long-awaited trial. Gberdao Gustave Kam is a former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Dlamini-Zuma also named Amady Diouf and Moustapha Ba of Senegal as judges, and Pape Ousmane Diallo (also Senegalese), as a substitute judge.

According to the Statute of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), the court is composed of an international presiding judge and two Senegalese judges, with two Senegalese substitute judges. They are all appointed by the AU Commission Chairperson, after being nominated by the Senegalese Justice Minister.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch hailed the nomination of the judges, saying this marked one of the last key steps towards the trial. He also said this was the first time judges from different African countries would judge a former African leader for crimes committed against African victims.

Belgian complaint against SenegalThe upcoming trial will be the culmination of a fifteen-year saga. Habré has been living in Dakar since 1990, when he was chased from power by current Chadian president Idriss Deby. He was indicted the first time in Senegal in 2000, but the country’s courts said they did not have the jurisdiction to try him. Victims then turned to Belgium, which said it had jurisdiction because some of the victims had Belgian nationality. In September 2005, after four years of investigations, a Belgian judge indicted Habré, and Brussels requested his extradition. After Dakar refused the request and three years of fruitless negotiations with regard to an African Union request, Belgium took Senegal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On July 20, 2012, the ICJ ordered Senegal to either prosecute Habré “without delay” or extradite him.

The case moved forward after the election of a new Senegalese President, Macky Sall. In February 2013, Dakar inaugurated the Extraordinary African Chambers, special courts within the Senegalese justice system, under an agreement with the African Union. These courts have a mandate to try those most responsible for serious crimes committed under Habré’s regime (1982 to 1990).

The former dictator was arrested at his home in Dakar on June 30, 2013. Two days later he was indicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. “This is a first victory for the victims,” said Jacqueline Moudeina, victims’ lawyer and president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (ATPDH). The reaction was similar from Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody, who has been following the case since 1999. He said it was the “beginning of the end” of the interminable political and legal wrangling to which the victims had been subject.

Political PoliceHissène Habré, who is presented on his official website as the “liberator, saviour and builder of the Republic of Chad”, is accused of thousands of political assassinations and systematic use of torture when 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 2013 report, 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 HRW’s Olivier Bercault, the main 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 Habré’s indictment, the EAC investigating judges got straight to work. They conducted four rogatory commissions in Chad during which they heard victims and witnesses, consulted DDS archives and visited alleged sites of mass graves. However, a fifth rogatory commission planned for the end of October-early November 2014 could not take place because of opposition from the Chadian authorities, who thus took revenge after their request to be recognized as civil party in the Habré case was rejected. The EAC wanted to return to N'Djamena to proceed with the indictment and questioning of Saleh Younous and Mahamat Djibrine (“El Jonto”), two suspected former leaders of the DDS who were recently tried in Chad with some 20 others. On March 25, a criminal court in N'Djamena convicted most of them for murder and torture.

“A judicial farce”All this investigation work took place without the participation of Habré’s lawyers, who contest the legality and impartiality of the EAC. In addition, the investigating judges have not managed to get any words out of Habré, who is exercising his right to remain silent. “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 in December 2013. “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, 2013 that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the application. Victims’ lawyers said Habré had failed in yet another attempt to delay justice and hailed the work of the EAC.

After this setback, Habré’s lawyers went to the Senegalese Supreme Court contesting the constitutionality of the EAC. They argued that the Senegalese Justice Minister at the time, Aminata Touré, did not have the power to sign on behalf of the Senegalese government the treaty with the AU setting up the Extraordinary African Chambers. However, the Senegalese Supreme Court threw out this argument at the beginning of March. It ruled that as Justice Minister, she did have the power to sign. It also noted that the creation of the EAC has been ratified by parliament.

One of the question marks still hanging over the trial is how it will be broadcast. According to the EAC Statute, is to be filmed, recorded and broadcast. However, President Deby has said he does not want it broadcast live in Chad, but rather extracts on state media, as was the case for the recent DDS trial.