Human Rights Watch (HRW) South Africa on Friday welcomed the opening on Monday of the trial of Chad’s former dictator Hiss├¿ne Habr├® in Senegal charged with crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes.
The trial will be the first in the world in which the courts of one country (Senegal) prosecute the former ruler of another (Chad) for alleged human rights crimes. Habr├® will stand trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system. The chambers were initiated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990 – the period when Habr├® ruled Chad.
“This trial is momentous in that it marks the first time in history anywhere in the world that the courts of one country are going to prosecute the former leader of another country for alleged crimes against humanity. And all of this is happening because of 25 years of mobilization of Habr├®’s victims,” HRW Johannesburg spokesperson Birgit Schwarz said on Friday.
In the wake of the recent dramatic escape from South Africa of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last month, who himself is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, and fled South Africa despite an interim court order to arrest him, HRW believes the Habr├® trial is a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes, in Africa and the world.
HRW has every reason to be jubilant that there is hope outside the ICC. The trial comes at a time when South Africa, with a considerable influence on continental matters, has since joined the narrative that the ICC is targeting African leaders. To this end, the country has still to make its final pronouncement whether or not it is ultimately pulling out of the ICC following sustained criticism from senior figures in the ruling African National Congress.
“South Africa has indicated that once it has exhausted the existing processes of resolving its issues with the ICC, it will certainly pronounce itself. It should however be indicated that South Africa remains committed to ensuring there is peace and stability in the world and in the continent which South Africa remains part,” cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams said in response to the Sunday Standard questions.
HRW says Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, President of the Trial Chamber, is expected to hear the Habr├® case along with two senior Senegalese judges. The trial is expected to last three months, with an estimated 100 witnesses and victims expected to testify says HRW.
Habr├®, through his lawyers, is reported to have said that he does not want to appear in court. Under Senegalese law, however, the court president can require his appearance.
He is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture. After he was deposed by the current President, Idriss D├®by Itno, in 1990, Habr├® fled to Senegal. He was first arrested in Senegal in February 2000, but Senegal refused to prosecute him then or to extradite him to Belgium in 2005. It was only in 2012, when Macky Sall became president of Senegal and the International Court of Justice, acting on a suit by Belgium, ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habr├® that progress was made towards the trial with the creation of the Extraordinary African Chambers. The chambers indicted Habr├® in July 2013 and placed him in pretrial custody. After a 19-month investigation, judges of the chambers found that there was sufficient evidence for Habr├® to face trial.