Step toward trial of ex-Chadian leader welcomed

Human rights groups have welcomed Senegal’s announcement that it will establish a commission to prepare the trial of exiled Chadian leader Hissene Habre, who has been indicted on charges of crimes against humanity.

“It’s an important step in the right direction,” Reed Brody of New York-based Human Rights Watch told IRIN on Friday. “Now Senegal has to follow this up with concrete steps, changing its laws, putting in place the infrastructure for a trial, raising the money from the international community, doing the work. It’s not going to be easy and this is just the first step.”

Habre has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990. Alleged victims of his eight-year regime filed charges of war crimes against him in Senegal and he was indicted in 2000. But then Senegalese courts ruled that he must be tried elsewhere. Habre’s alleged victims then turned to Belgium, where some of them lived, and Belgium indicted him last September.

A Senegalese court early this year said it was not competent to rule on the case and turned the decision over to the African Union. In July the AU mandated that Senegal prosecute Habre.

Senegal announced on Thursday that it would revise its laws to permit Habre’s trial. It also said it would establish an inter-governmental commission to oversee the legal changes, make contact with Chad, create a witness protection programme and raise money to carry out the investigation and trial. The government also appealed for financial support from the international community.

Brody, who serves as lead counsel for the alleged victims, said much still needs to be done to ensure that Habre stands trial in terms of financing, planning, and organising the various judicial and international aspects of the case.

“We’re looking at investigating massive crimes that were committed far away that in the best of circumstances will take a year or two,” he said.

Habre’s critics have dubbed him the “Pinochet of Africa.” Pinochet presided over a military dictatorship for nearly 20 years, during which time thousands of government opponents were killed or disappeared. Habre is accused of murder, torture and other atrocities allegedly inflicted on thousands of people.