afrol.com, 20 March - The highest court of appeal in Senegal, where the Chadian ex-dictator, Hissène Habré, is exiled, has ruled that Senegalese courts do not have the jurisdiction to try Habré on torture and murder charges during his eight years in power in Chad. While Senegalese President Wade supports the ruling, victims and their supporters protested the decision, which they said flew in the face of international law.
Habré's victims and their supporters immediately announced that they would continue to seek Habré's trial in Senegal or elsewhere. "This wrongheaded ruling will not end the quest for justice," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations that initiated the criminal action against Habré. "If Senegal will not put Habré on trial for his atrocities, we will ask it to hand him over to a country that will."
- Today's decision is a disappointment and a step backwards for the rule of law, " said the Senegalese lawyer, Sidiki Kaba, who is the president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH). Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has said that if there is to be a trial of Habré, it should be in Chad or in countries like France or the United States which backed Habré's 1982-1990 rule. Brody said that the victims were actively exploring avenues for Habré's extradition for trial in a third country. He also noted that Habré's trial in Senegal on related charges of crimes against humanity was still possible.
Habré's victims reacted harshly to today's ruling. "After so much suffering and then so much hope, I feel betrayed by Senegalese justice," said Ismael Hachim, 42, President of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), who spent 2 years in Habré's prison and was subject to the "Arbatachar," a frequent form of torture, in which a prisoner's four limbs were tied together behind his back, leading to loss of circulation and paralysis. "But facts are stubborn things and the evidence of Habré's crimes is finally being presented to the world. Hissène Habré has not seen the last of his victims."
Senegalese groups also responded with dismay. "My country lost an opportunity to break the tragic cycle of impunity," said Alioune Tine of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO). "This decision is an invitation to Africa's blood-stained tryants to plan their retirement in Senegal where no one can come after them." Tine said he would seek a change in Senegal's laws.
Hissène Habré was indicted February 2000, but in July an appeals court dismissed the charges, arguing that Senegal had no jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed in Chad. The ruling was appealed to the Cour de Cassation, Senegal's highest court, where the state prosecutor, Aly Ciré Ba, argued that the charges should be re-instated. Now, the Cour de Cassation affirmed the ruling, making Habré a free man.
Habré was put under house arrest when indicted last year, after having spent 10 years in Senegalese exile, keeping a low profile in a well-guarded house on the outskirts of Dakar. It was the first time that an African had been charged with atrocities by the court of another African country.
Chadian torture victims last year had started pressing for Habré's prosecution, and were joined by international and Senegalese human rights organisations, namely Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), RADDHO, the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (ATPDH), the Chadian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the National Organization for Human Rights (Senegal), the London-based Interights, and the French organization Agir Ensemble.
Arguing that Habré was directly responsible for numerous killings and disappearances, they submitted a damning dossier on him. Habré, now 58, took power in Chad in 1982, overthrowing the government of Goukouni Wedeye. Habré's one-party regime, supported by the United States and France, was marked by widespread abuse and campaigns against the ethnic Sara (1984), Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989). The exact number of Habre's victims is not known. A truth commission established by the current Chadian government accused Habré's government of 40,000 political murders and systematic torture. Habré was deposed in December 1990 and has lived in Senegal since.
The trial against Habré soon met resistance from the new Senegalese government, headed by President Abdoulaye Wade. Judge Demba Kandji of the Dakar Regional Court, who had indicted Habré on torture charges, on 4 July 2000, was removed from the case. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals dismissed the charges against Habré, ruling that Senegal had not enacted legislation to implement the Convention against Torture and therefore had no jurisdiction to pursue the charges because the crimes were not committed in Senegal. The dismissal drew protests from the United Nations, Senegal's association of judges, the New York Times and rights activists around the world.
Human rights organizations say that the decision flouted Senegal's legal obligation under the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture, which Senegal ratified in 1986, to prosecute alleged torturers who enter its territory. Under the Senegalese constitution, international treaties, once ratified, override Senegal's legal code.
President Abdoulaye Wade, although generally playing by democratic rules within Senegal, has been noted for a foreign policy in support of "the survival of the fittest" and with little thoughts on international human rights. His decisions to support Morocco against the Sahrawi people and Hissène Habré against his Chadian victims being the most well known examples.
The indictment of the former Chadian leader in Senegal has also had an impact back in Chad. On 26 October 2000, the Chadian victims who initiated the case in Dakar filed criminal charges in Chadian courts against their direct torturers, many of whom remain in positions of power, for torture, murder, and "disappearance." That case is now before Chad's Constitutional Court.
Hissène Habré is thought to have substantial private means, including treasury funds he took with him when he fled Chad as enemy forces advanced on N'djamena. He thus has been able to use the best of lawyers in the case against him. Further development in the case depends on whether the Chadian government or a third part asks for the extradition of Habré, to have him tried in N'djamena or in a third party country.