A Senegalese court has postponed until Friday a ruling on whether to extradite former Chadian leader Hissene Habre to Belgium over charges of mass torture and political executions during his rule in the 1980s.
The court is to rule on the validity of an international mandate for Habre’s arrest and extradition, issued in September by a Belgian court.
Habre lawyer El Hadj Diouf said the process was pushed back at the request of the prosecutor.
A decision to extradite the former leader would break legal ground in efforts by rights activists to end impunity, but the prospect of an African figure appearing in a court outside the continent is raising wide and heated debate in Senegal.
Hundreds of people - including members of Habre's family and his supporters, human rights lawyers and victims of the ex-Chadian regime's alleged atrocities - waited for several hours outside the tribunal for a decision that had been scheduled for Tuesday morning, only to be told to come back at the end of the week.
Habre, who has lived in Senegal for 15 years, is accused of masterminding mass atrocities during his rule from 1982 to 1990. A Chadian truth commission in 1992 blamed him for at least 40,000 political assassinations and systematic torture.
If the court approves the extradition request, it would fall to Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade to decide whether to hand Habre over to the Belgian court. Wade said last week he would consult the African Union on the matter.
Human rights lawyers said they are encouraged by the delay, saying it could mean that despite opposition to the handover in Senegal the judges are not convinced.
Rights activists told reporters on Tuesday they would appeal to Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerian president and head of the African Union.
“Senegal must deliver Habre,” Jacqueline Moudeina, lawyer for Chadian torture victims, told reporters.
Those pushing for the extradition recently have come up against an increasingly vocal camp in Senegal opposed to handing Habre over.
In radio talk shows, many Senegalese have questioned the idea of sending the ex-Chadian leader to Europe to be judged - some saying he should be left alone, others saying he should be judged but on African soil.
“We can judge him here,” Pape Sarr, 33, told IRIN on Tuesday. “They say he has committed crimes. I believe he should be judged and punished. But it’s not right that he be sent to Europe for that.”
Babacar Diop, 40, said Habre should not be called to account at all.
“I’m completely against this extradition,” Diop said. “Senegal is the country of teranga,” he said, using the Wolof word for hospitality. “It means the weak must be protected. It is a sacred principle here.”
Diop said Habre is weak because he is “all alone” in the legal process against Belgium. “We must protect him. He’s now one of us.”