January 25, 2006
The African Union for now has sidestepped a decision on the legal fate of ex-Chadian leader Hissene Habre, opting to create a panel of African jurists to advise on bringing him to trial for alleged political killings and torture. But human rights campaigners anxious to see him placed on trial believe his extradition to Belgium in line with a September 2005 court request remains the best solution to see justice done.
Habre, who has lived in exile in Senegal for 15 years, is accused of instigating tens of thousands of cases of political killings and torture during his rule in Chad from 1982 to 1990. His case came before the AU after a Senegalese court said it was not competent to rule on the Belgian extradition request, and President Abdoulaye Wade subsequently decided not to hand over Habre but instead asked the AU to make a recommendation.
At its summit in the Sudan capital Khartoum, the AU passed a resolution calling for a panel of "eminent African jurists" to rule on how and where he should be tried. The committee is to report back at the next AU meeting in the Gambian capital, Banjul, in July. Saying it believed that no crime should go unpunished, the 53-nation AU in its resolution underscored its "total rejection of impunity" and "its commitment to fight against impunity." The resolution calls for "favouring an African mechanism."
The idea of trying a former African head of state in a European courtroom has riled many Africans as a neo-colonial move, particularly in Senegal where Habre has lived for so many years. But others disagree. "Extraditing Habre to Belgium is the most realistic option for ensuring a prompt and fair trial," Human Rights Watch (HRW) lawyer Reed Brody told IRIN by phone from Khartoum. He said the Habre case "must not be allowed to drag on or to become a political football."
While Habre lawyers say extradition is no longer an option since last year's Senegalese ruling, HRW was quick to point out this week that the Belgian arrest warrant and extradition request still stand, and that African leaders have not ruled out a handover. Brody said judging Habre in Africa, as many African leaders have urged, would pose a huge challenge. "Creating an ad hoc African tribunal to try Habre would entail enormous political will, years of delay and costs of at least US $100 million."
But Habre lawyer Doudou Ndoye said the AU ruling came down to a no to extradition to Belgium. "The decision consitutes a refusal to extradite Hissene Habre to Belgium," he told IRIN on Wednesday. "It's the right decision." He did not want to comment on the possibility of his client one day facing a judge in Africa, saying only, "With respect to Belgium, it's closed."
For people detained during Habre's rule, the AU decision only prolongs a gruelling wait. "We have waited 15 years," Ibrahim Hachim Abdallah, head of the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime, told IRIN from Khartoum. He was detained for two years by the Habre administration. "We are still suffering today.We are tired."
Victims groups say they are far from giving up their fight. A group of Chadians first brought a case against Habre in Senegal in 2000. A Senegalese court charged the ex-president with torture and crimes against humanity, placing him under house arrest, but the following year a higher court said Habre could not stand trial there for crimes allegedly committed elsewhere. Chadians in Belgium later filed suit under the country's 'universal jurisdiction,' which allows for prosecution of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.
Abdourahmane Gueye, whose friend and business partner, Demba Gaye, died in Chad while the two were detained in 1987, told IRIN he is dismayed that African leaders have yet again put off a decision on Habre. "How many thousands of people are still suffering today? It's unacceptable to drag this out."
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