The case against Hissene Habre

10 February 2010 by Bram Posthumus

An international legal drama is playing itself out in the Senegalese capital Dakar, against the backdrop of the Monument for the African Renaissance. Main characters in no specific order: Hissène Habré, former president of the central African state of Chad, Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal, the African Union, Belgium, lawyers and human rights groups. At issue: can an African state put a former head of another African state on trial for crimes against humanity?

This month sees the tenth anniversary of a unique action against the former head of an African state. In late January 2000, seven citizens from the republic of Chad walked into a court in the Senegalese capital Dakar and charged their former president Hissène Habré with torture. Ten years on, the frustration about the time it takes to get anything done is palpable. ‘It’s a shame for Senegal,’ says Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer and human rights activists from Chad. She has been campaigning long and hard to have Mr Habré tried. ‘Senegal was the first African country to ratify the UN Convention against Torture. Everything is in place to get this trial underway: the judges, the lawyers, the venue. These delays make them look bad.’

Hissène Habré, now 67, has been living under house arrest in Dakar since fleeing Chad in 1990. In April 2009, the Senegalese authorities promised the International Court of Justice in The Hague that he would not be leaving Senegal. But why are things moving so slowly? Answering that question in full requires us to dig into a bit of history.

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