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Senegal avoids human rights trial

Delays in trying ex-Chadian dictator Hissene Habre case reveal deeper problems

Abdourahmane Gueye is the only living Senegalese victim of mistreatment by ex-Chadian dictator Hissene Habre. For years Senegal has postponed bringing Habre to trial, but Gueye hasn't given up hope of seeing the former Chadian leader brought to justice. Gueye never thought he would get out of Habre's Chadian prison alive but since he did then anything is possible, he said. (Anne Look/GlobalPost)

DAKAR, Senegal — Delays in bringing former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to trial for crimes against humanity are damaging Senegal's already tarnished international reputation.

Habre is known as "Africa's Pinochet" for his brutal rule of Chad from 1982 to 1990, during which his regime committed 40,000 political murders and tortured 200,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

Habre, 66, has been living in Senegal since he was deposed 18 years ago. Since 2000 he has been under house arrest, pending a long-delayed trial in Senegal or possible extradition to Belgium, which issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005.

“Habre is accused of systematic torture as well as thousands of political killings, and Senegal can’t just wash its hands of that,” said lawyer Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “He should have been tried a long, long time ago.

“The victims who I work with have lost all confidence in Senegal,” added Brody, who has been working on the case since 2000. Senegal has a legal obligation under the United Nation's Convention Against Torture to either prosecute Habre or extradite him, Brody said.

The African Union called on Senegal to bring Hissene Habre to trial on behalf of Africa in 2006, and over the course of the next two years, Senegal put in place the law and constitutional reforms that would allow it to do so. But now, the case is at a standstill, Brody said, and the African Union’s credibility is on the line.

Senegal estimates that the trial will cost $35 million, and wants donors to pay the entire amount up front. International donors have deemed that amount exorbitant and are reluctant to agree, especially since Senegal has not offered a clear plan of how Habre's trial will proceed, Brody said.

“The international community has enough experience with Senegal to not give them a blank check,” Brody said. “They would rather fund this piece by piece and ensure that the money is well spent.”

But the clock is ticking, said Abdourahmane Gueye, Habre’s only living Senegalese victim. Now 62, Gueye fears he will die before the trial begins — as many of Habre's victims already have — or worse, that Hissene Habre will die and the case will simply disappear.

“We are in 2009, and nothing has been done,” Gueye said. “As a Senegalese victim, I blame the state of Senegal a lot because Senegal has not put forth an effort.”