A special court of African judges opened in Senegal to prepare a case against former Chadian president Hissene Habre, who’s accused of causing the deaths of more than 40,000 people and torture during his eight-year rule.
The trial, operating under an African Union mandate, will take place at the High Court of Justice in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and is expected to begin after a 15-month investigation scheduled to start next week.
“The ceremony this morning is to show the world the effective start of the tribunal,” Sire Aly Ba, the administrator of the court, said to the applause of lawyers, international human rights activists and foreign diplomats attending the opening.
The establishment of the “Extraordinary African Chambers,” an ad hoc court, follows two decades of failed attempts to bring Habre, 70, to justice. He fled Chad in 1990 after rebels led by current President Idriss Deby overran Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. Habre denies the charges against him.
“This is historic for Africa,” Assane Dioma Ndiaye, president of Senegal’s League of Human Rights who’s coordinating five lawyers representing victims in four countries, said in an interview Feb. 6. “This is the first time the African Union has decided to create an African court and the first time it has accepted to try an African leader.”
Chad, the European Union and the U.S. have pledged to fund the proceedings. The court, whose judges will be nominated by the African Union, will operate within Senegal’s legal system.
Senegal’s parliament approved a law establishing the tribunal in December, following the election of President Macky Sall. While Sall’s predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, was in office, the West African nation turned down requests for extradition by a Belgian judge who indicted Habre on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in 2005.
Previous trials of former African leaders include the 1993 conviction of ex-Malian dictator Moussa Traore for political crimes and the 1987 guilty verdict for Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former leader of the Central African Republic, on charges of treason, murder and embezzlement.
“African courts have been incapable of delivering justice against African leaders,” Reed Brody, a lawyer for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a Feb. 4 telephone interview. “This is why the international courts have stepped in.”
The African Union, the European Parliament, the Economic Community of West African States and the International Court of Justice urged Senegal to prosecute Habre or extradite him.
A Chadian court tried Habre in absentia in 2008 and sentenced him to death for an alleged attempt to overthrow the government.
“The tendency has been impunity, passivity, eyes were closed,” said Sire Aly Ba, the administrator of the Extraordinary African Chambers. “The tendency has been to forget. Justice was for the small people, not for the heads of state. Now, finally, there is a real political will.”
A National Truth Commission in Chad accused Habre’s government of torture and the assassination of as many as 40,000 people.
Files found at the abandoned headquarters of Chad’s secret police detail interrogation methods of thousands of prisoners held in detention centers, according to Human Rights Watch, whose researchers discovered the archives and which has campaigned for Habre’s prosecution.
The documents outline how the secret police, which reported directly to Habre, extracted confessions by forcing prisoners’ mouths around a car exhaust or making victims drink water until they lost consciousness, according to the New York-based rights group.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has brought the most recent cases against African leaders, such as Ivory Coast’s former leader Laurent Gbagbo and Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir.
“There is a need in Africa for an international court,” Ndiaye said. “Up until now, there has been nowhere for civilians to go to lodge a case against a leader. Now it has been decided to bring about an investigation against a head of state, so this is something that we should congratulate.”