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Senegal avoids human rights trial

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

It's been 22 years since Gueye was released from a Chadian prison. Habre’s feared political police had accused Gueye and his colleague, Demba Gaye, of being Libyan spies and imprisoned them while they were in Chad on a business trip in March 1987.

Seriously ill but alive, Gueye was freed six months later after the intervention of then-Senegalese President Abdou Diouf. But the release came too late for Gaye, who had died sometime during his imprisonment.

Though Gueye didn’t suffer the brutal interrogation tactics that the Habre regime was known for, the conditions were torture enough, he said.

As many as 100 prisoners were kept naked in a dark, hot, standing-room only cell; they slept in shifts on the cement floor. Prisoners left their cells twice a day, once at 6 a.m. to get water and again at 5 p.m. to get food, which was often rancid. Two or three died each day from sickness. When they were herded back into the cell, the guards sometimes had to push the mass of prisoners in to get the door to close.  

“I lived with detainees who had been harshly tortured,” Gueye said. “Some were tortured for two or three days straight, and they died as a result. They electrocuted them, even hooking up their genitals to machines, until they confessed things they hadn’t even done. They were innocent.”

“The majority of them didn’t even know why they had been stopped,” Gueye said. “For those who were stopped, people said it was over for you.”

In 1992, a Chadian Truth Commission accused the Habre regime of systematic torture and 40,000 political assassinations. In 2001, Human Rights Watch discovered abandoned files of Habre's police. The files are a roadmap to Habre’s direct involvement in the detention of more than 12,000 people, including 1,208 who died.

People sometimes ask Gueye if his effort to bring Habre to trial is a waste of time, he said. Energy shortages and rising food prices have made daily survival in Senegal difficult, and many Senegalese don't even know or care who Hissene Habre is.

Still, Gueye hasn't lost hope that Habre will be brought to justice, if not in Senegal then in Belgium. It’s much too important for the victims and for Africa, he said.

Habre's trial in Senegal would be a landmark case in Africa, putting an end to a cycle of repression and impunity that has allowed deposed African dictators to live out their final days abroad without the threat of justice.

Yet that's a legal precedent that African heads of state are loathe to set, fearing they could be next, said Alioune Tine, president of the Senegalese human rights organization RADDHO.

“From the moment the victims first demanded justice for the crimes Habre committed up until now, Senegal has not really demonstrated the political will to try Hissene Habre,” Tine said.

Senegal is bluffing, he said, and the problem goes much deeper than a budgetary dispute.
Habre has woven a web of protection around himself in Senegal using millions of dollars he allegedly stole from the Chadian treasury before taking refuge in Dakar 18 years ago, and conflicts of interest abound, Tine said.

Habre's former defense lawyer is now the Senegalese justice minister charged with carrying out his prosecution. The U.N. has condemned political interference in the judiciary process.

Even more disappointing to Tine, though, is the fact that the Habre case is part of a larger decline in the respect for human rights in Senegal, a country once heralded as a democratic jewel and diplomatic leader in the region.

“Senegal’s image with regards to human rights is seriously damaged today on the international level,” Tine said, his voice growing louder and more insistent as he rattled off examples.

In January, nine homosexual AIDS activists were each sentenced to eight years in prison. A Senegalese journalist was just sentenced to three years in prison for writing an article unfavorable to the president. Violence against women and girls is on the rise. Talibes — young boys sold by their parents to marabouts — roam the streets of Dakar in search of food and money, often falling victim to pedophilia and abuse. And the case of Hissene Habre lurches on.

“The closer we get to the final judgment of Hissene Habre, the more difficult it is going to get for us and for the victims,” Tine said. “But we must be vigilant at all times. We must never give up on the case of Hissene Habre.”