In Senegal, a truly historic trial is unfolding as Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habré stands accused of crimes against humanity and torture, 25 years after his eight-year brutal rule ended. The trial that is highly anticipated by Habré’s victims, their families and human rights organisations, is the first of an African leader on the African continent for human rights violations.
25 years is a long time to wait, especially when you are seeking justice for human rights violations committed against you. Nonetheless, this is how long former Chad dictator Hissene Habré’s alleged victims and their families have had to wait before they could see him brought to trial for crimes against humanity and torture.
Many victims have been calling for it since his overthrow and exile in Senegal in 1990. A Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré’s government of 40,000 political murders and systematic torture. According to the commission, most abuses were carried out by his political police, the Documentation and Security Directorate, whose directors reported directly to the dictator.
Yet, despite being accused of thousands of political murders and systematic torture during his eight-year rule, Habré managed to live in Senegal for 22 years without being arrested.
It was not until August 2012, that Senegal and the African Union (AU) signed an agreement to establish the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court in the Senegalese justice system, for Habré’s trial, putting an end to more than decade of legal wrangling over his prosecution.
The agreement followed a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice a month earlier, ordering Senegal to bring Habré to justice “without further delay” either by prosecuting him domestically or extraditing him for trial.” Habré was finally arrested in July 2013.
The start of the trial against Habré on 20 July 2015 is in itself a victory for the victims, who filed the charges against Habré initially in 2000 and relentlessly fought throughout the years for their right to justice. They never stopped raising their case with politicians, the public and the media to ensure that their voices were being heard and that efforts for investigation and prosecution did not cease.
The court’s procedures allow victims to directly engage as civil parties in the trial, and over 4000 have registered to do so. In the event that Habré will be found guilty of the allegations of crimes against humanity and torture, the court can also order that reparations are paid into a victims’ fund, which will benefit all victims who have from suffered Habre’s actions.
According to The Independent, around 100 witnesses are already in Senegal’s capital Dakar, waiting to give evidence to the hearings, which are likely to last three months. The newspaper also reported that many campaigners were in court, holding signs calling for justice for the victims.
In her opening statement to the court, Jacqueline Moudeina, the leading victims’ representative, said that the trial “is in the name of humanity, a humanity which Hissene Habre never allowed his victims“.
We are still to see if the trial will lead to justice for the victims, but the fact that there is even a trial is a great milestone in African justice.