Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Victors' justice: Case against Hissène Habré clears final legal hurdle

It’s official: Senegal can now try former Chadian leader Hissène Habré for alleged crimes committed while he was head of state in the 1980s.

Senegal’s national assembly amended the country’s constitution prohibiting prosecuting crimes committed prior to the existence of laws against them, providing Senegalese courts a “crimes against humanity” loophole. In plain speak: The move clears the final legal obstacle in trying Habré, who has lived in Senegalese exile since 1990 after being deposed by current leader Idriss Déby.

The list of human rights violations allegedly committed during Habré’s eight-year rule is staggering. Here’s what we had to say back in November about the potential case against him:

It is safe to say that even if Habré is never brought to trial, the world will by no means miss his years in government. According to Human Rights Watch, the overview of his rule reads like this:

His one party regime was marked by widespread violations of human rights and mass campaigns of violence against his own people. On occasions he undertook persecutions by making collective arrests and committing mass murders against different ethnic groups, especially when he perceived their leaders to be a threat to his regime. This was particularly true of the Sara and other groups from the South (in 1984) the Hadjaraï (in 1987) and the Zaghawa (in 1989).The exact number of Habré’s victims remains unknown to this day. In 1992, a Commission of Enquiry of the Chadian Justice Ministry, set up by his successor, accused the Habré government of 40’000 politically motivated murders and systematic torture.

The New York-based human rights organization, which assisted in the investigation against Habré, claims to have documentation on the details of 97 political killings, 142 cases of torture, 100 “disappearances” and 736 arbitrary arrests. The group also brought up a report by a French medical team treating more than 580 torture victims.

I’ve got friends in low places
As this story gathered steam in the last six months or so, many focused on African leaders’ reluctance to try a former head of state for human rights abuses because they themselves one day may be running from the gallows of public justice. However, it appears clear that Habré had very few well placed friends left.

One reason is the tenacity of those building the legal case against him. They began in the courtroom in Senegal as early as 2000, when a lower court found him guilty. A higher court threw out the verdict, citing the aforementioned constitutional issues. In 2005, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for the ex-dictator, putting some Africans on the defensive that a former colonial power would attempt to meddle in their justice system. However, the tide on the continent began turning. In 2006, the African Union urged Senegal to try the case and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights worked with the country to revise its legal system. Perhaps most importantly, the European Union even offered to pay for the proceedings.

It is not known when a trial against Habré will get underway.

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