By Justice Hub
On Monday, the trial will begin of former Chadian president Hissein Habré in Dakar, Senegal, at the Extraordinary African Chambers. Franck Petit is the head of the Outreach Team for the special court.
Q: Who is Hissein Habré?
Hissein Habré was a rebel who took over power in Chad in 1982. He served as president until December 1990, when he was overthrown by another rebel, the current president, Idriss Déby.
Q: What has he been accused of?
He’s accused of having permitted torture, extrajudicial executions and disappearances when he was in power. A first investigation was conducted in Chad soon after he fled into exile. The Chadian commission estimated that 40,000 people were murdered during his eight-year rule. That’s the figure that is still used today.
At the special court in Dakar, he faces charges of crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes. There is no accusation of genocide, even though that is part of the crimes investigated by the court under its statutes. According to human rights organisations, he directed a system of repression against several ethnic communities and political opponents.
Q: You mentioned a special court in Dakar. Why is there a court in Dakar, Senegal?
Because Hissein Habré went into exile after the fall of his regime, first to Cameroon, then to Dakar. He lived there for several years without any problems. But in January 2000, Chadian victims filed several complaints before Senegalese courts.
That was the beginning of a long political and judicial story. The victims started demanding justice, first in Senegal, then in Chad. They filed a few complaints there too. And then in that same year, 2000, they did the same in Belgium. Belgium launched an enquiry that lasted for four years. They even went to Chad to investigate the case, and they eventually asked Senegal to extradite Hissein Habré. But Belgian pressure proved to be insufficient.
Belgium took the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The ICJ ruled in 2012 that Senegal should either extradite Hissein Habré or judge him under its national jurisdiction.
A few years earlier, Abdoulaye Wade, the former president of Senegal, had tried to refer the case to the African Union, and the AU answered that Senegal should try Hissein Habré in the name of Africa.
Q: So a variety of factors finally led to Habré being put on trial.
Yes, there was this combination of pressure, first from the victims, second from Belgium and third from the African Union. That finally came to a head in 2012, when Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade was replaced by Macky Sall, who had promised during his presidential campaign that Habré would be put on trial.
So that’s the long story, which lasted 25 years from the time Hissein Habré left power to the creation of this special African court.
Q: So what type of court is actually trying him? Is it Senegalese?
The particularity is that it’s not a proper international court, as it is part of the Senegalese judicial system. The court is called the Extraordinary African Chambers, created and founded under an agreement between the African Union and Senegal. It has a statute describing and referring to the definition of international crimes, just like international courts do.
So, it has various international dimensions, the first one being legal. The second is that it’s based on the founding agreement of the court, and third the nomination of two non-Senegalese judges. The president of the assize court comes from Burkina Faso. In other words, it’s a court that works within the Senegalese judicial system with an international dimension, but it’s not a proper international court.
Q: That’s weird, isn’t it?
It’s quite a creative solution, I would say, but it’s also very interesting because it’s easier to implement and it’s less costly. It works mainly with Senegalese magistrates under proceedings they are very familiar with already. So, there are few new facts for them, except that their investigation will take place abroad. It will go much faster than what we have seen at international courts. It’s a civil law system, of course, which is the way the Senegalese and Chadian judicial systems work.
Q: Is it a one-off or could this be replicated elsewhere?
It could be replicated because it’s the way that the African Union and Senegal found to implement universal jurisdiction with more guarantees. It refers to international law and also has the support of the international community. Creating this international court allows the Senegalese to implement universal jurisdiction with more support and maybe more cooperation from Chad because there’s much more visibility and political support. So that’s interesting.
And again, it costs a lot less. There’s nothing really extremely complex to create or implement, and it can stand for a limited period of time. This court has a very narrow mandate. It’s designed to judge crimes committed by high-level officials in Chad between 1982 and 1990. That could have worked for other cases than Hissein Habré, and they actually examined six cases during the investigation phase, but finally the only one they could get is Hissein Habré.
Osvaldo Gutierrez is a Cuban cartoonist who works for Cartoon Movement.