A special court set up in Senegal to try Chadian former president Hissein Habre for war crimes and crimes against humanity will begin work on February 8, the justice ministry in Dakar has announced.
Habre, 70, has lived in exile in Senegal since he was ousted in 1990 and the host country has for years been under strong international pressure to take him to court over the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but the trial has long been put off.
"The ceremony to launch the activities of the African special chambers created under Senegalese jurisdiction to try the crimes committed in Chad between December 7, 1982, and December 1, 1990, will take place on Friday, February 8" at the Dakar high court buildings, the justice ministry said in a statement dated Thursday.
"This solemn ceremony will be presided over by Mr Cire Aly Ba, administrator of the said chambers, in the presence of the judges who were recently appointed by the Higher Council of the Magistracy," the statement added.
The court will comprise four special chambers: two for handling evidence and investigation, an assize court and an appeal court, consisting of Senegalese and other African judges to be appointed by the African Union (AU).
No date has yet been fixed for the beginning of Habre's trial proper. "This is a matter of starting up the court's activities," a source close to the case told AFP, adding that no further details were yet available.
Habre is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture during his eight years in power in Chad, where non-governmental organisations report that some 40,000 people were killed under his rule.
The Senegalese government and the African Union (AU) signed an agreement to set up the court, which was ratified by Senegalese lawmakers on December 19.
The AU mandated Senegal to try Habre in July 2006, but nothing happened while former president Abdoulaye Wade was in power. His successor, Macky Sall, who took up office in April 2012, ruled out extraditing Habre to Belgium, which was prepared to try him, and vowed to organise a trial in Senegal.
Human Rights Watch lawyer and spokesman Reed Brody said that Habre's victims will finally "see the light at the end of the tunnel" after 22 years.
Senegal is thus sending a strong message to leaders in Africa and elsewhere they run the risk of being called to account if they commit atrocities against their population.