Parties to the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, are meeting in Uganda to review progress and reaffirm a commitment to fighting impunity. Human rights and legal experts say bringing former Chadian leader Hissène Habré to trial is indispensable to ensuring that such international treaties are more than words on paper.
Habré was deposed in 1990 and has since been living in Senegal, the first African country to sign the Rome Statute. At a recent conference in the capital, Dakar, civil society representatives and people who survived Chadian prisons reiterated a call for Senegal to prosecute the former president of Chad.
"We have nations signing everything in sight," said Amsatou Sow Sidibé, director of Senegal's Institute for Human Rights and Peace. "Now for implementation; there is no way Senegal can be a haven for someone accused of odious crimes. Africa must not be a parody of the law.”
Participants at the Dakar conference said the fact that Habré has not yet been tried only condones human rights violations. "Today it's about Chad; tomorrow it will be another country. Because of impunity, human rights violations continue everywhere," said lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, president of the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.
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Habré was first indicted by a Senegalese court in 2000 on charges of crimes against humanity during his eight years in power. After political and legal wrangling stalled the case, in 2005 lawyers filed a complaint in Brussels – where some survivors live – requesting Habré's extradition.
Now the case is back in the hands of Senegal, but President Abdoulaye Wade has said the government needs all the trial funds up front to proceed. "Nothing but excuses and delaying tactics," Moudeina commented. "Today both Chad [where a suit against Habré's alleged accomplices is pending] and Senegal are fostering impunity."
Senegalese Justice Ministry spokesperson Cheikh Bamba Niang told IRIN: “The only remaining obstacle is the budget, and we are discussing this with the European Union and the African Union.” He did not wish to comment on criticisms voiced at the conference.
Participants watched a documentary featuring men and women detained during Habré's term in office. The audience included former prisoners and the sister of a Senegalese man who died in prison in Chad.
The film by journalist Florent Chevolleau recounts efforts by Human Rights Watch and former political prisoners to bring Habré to trial.
Former prisoners describe in the film how they spent days in tiny, stifling cells with the bodies of detainees who had died, and how Habré's police used electricity and beatings to torture people. France and the United States favoured Habré as a bulwark against Libya, after its leader Muammar Ghaddafi occupied the mineral-rich Aouzou Strip in northern Chad in 1973.
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Souleymane Guengueng, the founder of an association of victims of political repression in Chad, explained to IRIN some of what he experienced during two and a half years in prison.
“We lay on dead bodies. [Those running the prison] made me eat things a dog would not eat, including excrement.” Fellow detainees told him later he was declared dead three times during imprisonment.
"We survivors, who have dared to pursue justice, we sorely need civil society in order to combat impunity ... No matter what one's social sector, impunity is a cancer in Africa, and no one is safe from its claws," Guengueng told IRIN.
"We want the Senegalese people to understand – even if politicians want to protect this criminal [Habré] – that the people must stand up, because tomorrow it could be them. Society must rise up and demand justice in this case; this would create a rule of law in which dictators would think twice [before committing such acts]."
Local Muslim and Christian leaders, a member of parliament, a business owner and a university professor also addressed the conference. Member of Parliament Abdoulaye Babou vowed to raise the Habré issue in the National Assembly during the week of 31 May.
"It is very important to have people from all sectors of society add their voices to this fight, not just survivors," Clément Abaifouta, who dug graves for detainees who died during his four years in prison, told IRIN.
"There is a huge mobilisation on the part of civil society today – in Africa and internationally," Alioune Tine, president of RADDHO, a Dakar-based pan-African human rights organisation, told IRIN. "And I believe because of this we are moving toward a trial."
Chadian lawyer Moudeina said: "Our heartfelt plea is for a strong civil society that stands up against impunity in Africa. It is not in a spirit of vengeance that we pursue this; we simply want to eradicate impunity."