African Union to decide in Chad war crimes case

The case of Chad’s former president Hissène HabrĂ©, now fighting a Belgian extradition request on atrocity charges, will be handed over to African Union leaders to decide next month, Senegal’s government announced. Senegal’s Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said Nov. 27 that HabrĂ© may remain in Senegal until AU leaders decide where he should be tried. Gadio recognized that HabrĂ© was accused of “odious crimes, even crimes against humanity,” and promised that Senegal would “abstain from any act which would permit Hissène HabrĂ© not to face justice.” He said that it was “up to the African Union summit to indicate the jurisdiction which is competent to hear the case.”

The Belgian international arrest warrant, issued in September, charges HabrĂ© with torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The files of HabrĂ©’s political police, discovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001, reveal the names of 1,208 persons who died in detention, as well as over 12,000 victims of various abuses.

On Nov. 26, after a Senegalese court had failed to rule on an extradition request from Belgium, Senegal’s interior minister issued an order placing HabrĂ© “at the disposition” of Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo as AU chairman. The next day, Gadio said that HabrĂ© would stay in Senegal until the issue was considered at the next AU summit, scheduled to be held in Khartoum on January 23-4.

“This case must not become a political football,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “HabrĂ©’s victims have suffered too much and waited too long to find a court willing to listen to their suffering. Belgium is ready and able to hear the case. The African Union and Senegal must choose justice and not impunity.”

The current government of Chad supports HabrĂ©’s extradition to Belgium. Last week, Chad’s President Idriss DĂ©by publicly called for HabrĂ©’s extradition to Belgium. Two weeks ago, thousands of Chadians took to the streets of N’Djamena in support of the former dictator’s extradition.

Hissène Habré ruled the former French colony of Chad from 1982 until 1990, when he was deposed by current President Idriss Déby and fled to Senegal. His one-party regime was marked by widespread atrocities. Habré periodically targeted various ethnic groups such as the Sara (1983-84), Chadian Arabs, Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989-90), killing and arresting en masse.

In February 2000, a Senegalese court charged HabrĂ© with torture and crimes against humanity and placed him under house arrest. But in March 2001, Senegal’s highest court said that HabrĂ© could not stand trial in Senegal for crimes allegedly committed elsewhere. HabrĂ©’s victims immediately announced that they would seek HabrĂ©’s extradition to Belgium, where 21 of HabrĂ©’s victims had filed suit. A four-year investigation by a Belgian judge resulted in an international arrest warrant against HabrĂ© on Sept. 19, 2005, and his arrest in Senegal on Nov. 15. On Nov. 25, a Senegalese court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to rule on the extradition request, throwing the case into a legal limbo. (HRW, Nov. 27)

HabrĂ©’s reign began when his French-backed guerilla forces took the capital in 1982, overthrowing Goukouni Oueddei, who had been backed by Mommar Qaddafi’s Libya. Qaddafi then started backing a guerilla insurgency, and even sent troops to effectively occupy the north of the country. France, in turn, sent troops to back HabrĂ©. (Global Security, “Libyan intervention in Chad”)

The French-Libyan proxy war lasted until a guerilla victory again returned a Libya-backed regime to power under Idriss DĂ©by’s Patriotic Salvation Movement. But the two governments fell out over control of the disputed mineral-rich Aozou Strip. The International Court of Justice ruled for Chad in a case over the Strip in 1994.

Qaddafi’s intervention (even if transparently a play for the Aozou Strip) was ostensibly motivated by the need to protect Arabs and other ethnic groups in the north from HabrĂ©’s persecution (which was real enough). This is somewhat ironic given that HabrĂ© himself was from the north and began his political career as a guerilla commander in Goukouni’s Armed Forces of the North (FAN). (Wikipedia) It is also somewhat ironic given that Qaddafi has today adopted a pan-Africanist stance, distancing himself from his former Arab nationalism even to the point of advocating a binational solution to the Israel-Palestine dilemma.

A final irony is that DĂ©by’s Chad has now so thoroughly capitulated to the West that it is inviting in Pentagon troops (to help police the Sahara against terrorist infiltration, ostensibly) and oil companies like Exxon (on terms protested as too easy by peasants and ecologists). (See our special report, April 2004) These days the military tensions are not with Libya to the north but Sudan to the east—where the Darfur conflict has spilled across the border into Chad more than once. (See WW4 REPORT #95)

See our last post on the politics of the Sahel.