The start of the trial of Hissene Habre today concludes a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup.
Habre, backed by Washington as a bulwark against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s, is blamed by rights groups for widespread torture and the killing of up to 40,000 people during the eight years he ruled his impoverished African nation.
Though African presidents have been tried in their own countries for crimes committed in office, Habre’s trial marks the first time that a court in one country has prosecuted the former ruler of another on rights charges, according to Human Rights Watch.
It comes a month after Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s escape from an international arrest warrant in South Africa marked a new low in relations between Africa and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The ICC was embraced by many African governments when it was set up in 2002, but attitudes towards the largely European-funded court have cooled after it has indicted only Africans, prompting many to label it a Western-controlled, neo-colonial institution.
“This is a chance to show that an African court can deliver justice for African victims for crimes committed in Africa,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who has pursued the Habre case since 1999.
“It’s one thing to complain about having abusive African presidents sent to The Hague. It’s another thing to show that they can be prosecuted and get a fair trial here in Africa.”
The proceedings, due to last around three months, will be heard by a Special African Chamber created in 2013 by Senegal and the African Union.
‘The case turns on whether Habre, feted at the White House in 1987 by US president Ronald Reagan after expelling Libyan forces from Chad, ordered the large-scale assassination and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.