Habre trial to show off African justice
Share this article:
Johannebsurg – The African Union (AU) is showcasing the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissen Habre which starts next month, as a pilot project which will demonstrate African solutions for African judicial problems.
The trial of the man who is accused of killing about 40 000 political enemies starts on July 20 before the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court set up by the African Union (AU) and Senegal to try Habre and his officials.
Vincent Nmehielle, the African Union’s legal counsel and chair of the steering committee group on Habre’s trial, said at a press conference at the AU summit taking place in Johannesburg that this would be the first trial by the AU of a former head of state.
It would also be an example of the AU managing its own judicial affairs and it was best placed to do so as it best understood them.
It would also demonstrate that it was easier to try a former head of state than a sitting head of state anywhere in the world, he added. This would prove the point that the AU made at its summit in Malabo last year that the African Court’s criminal jurisdiction should only apply to former heads of state.
This was a clear reference to the AU’s fight with the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its indictment of two sitting African heads of state, Sudan’s Omar-el-Bashir and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta.
The indictment of Bashir remained controversial at the summit on Friday as human rights organisations had said they were preparing to seek an urgent court order for an arrest warrant to be issued against him if he arrived in South Africa for the summit.
That is because as a member of the ICC, South Africa is obliged to arrest him as he is a fugitive from ICC judgement.
The jurisdiction of the Extraordinary African Chambers applies only to the years 1982 to 1990 when Habre was president in Chad and only to the most serious crimes under international law.
Abdou Khadre, who is head of the court’s outreach programme detailed the long process of bringing Habre to court, starting with a Chadian national commission of inquiry in 1992 which accused him of killing about 40,000 political foes and systematically torturing many others.
In 2000, seven of his victims filed charges against Habre in Senegal but the courts there decided they had no jurisdiction as the crimes had not been committed in Senegal.
A few months later three Belgian victims of Chadian origin filed charges against Habre in Belgium. After a four-year investigation, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for him.
In November 2005 the Senegal government arrested Habre on the basis of a Belgian extradition request. But he was released within days as the Senegal courts determined they had no jurisdiction to hear the extradition request.
In July 2006 the AU asked Senegal to try Habre “on behalf of Africa.” In 2009 at Belgium’s request, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) called on Senegal to “prosecute or extradite” Habre.
In August 2012 Senegal and the AU signed an agreement to create the African Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) to try Habre and in July 2013 the court indicted him for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture and he was arrested.
Nmehielle said the court would function to the highest international standards, and Khadre detailed how its Senegalese judges had been appointed by the President of the AU Commission from lists
supplied by Senegal’s Minister of Justice.
He also said the court had already cost 1,85 million euros and was predicted to cost 8,5 million euros by the time it completed its work of trying Habre after which it would be dissolved.
He appealed to media and others to give maximum publicity to the trial to demonstrate the viability of “African solutions for African problems” and to illustrate its determination to fight impunity.
Habre’s lawyers have argued that this is a court created and designed to try him only and that has effectively denied him the presumption of innocence before he has even entered the dock..
Nmehielle was also asked today whether Deby should not himself have been indicted. He was part of Habre’s government and has himself been accused of crimes against humanity.
And he was also asked whether the AU was right to have granted sitting presidents – including perhaps Deby – immunity from prosecution and whether the vague prospect that they could be tried by another extraordinary court after they have left office would really deter them from committing atrocities.
Or might it instead encourage them to stay in office until death?
Nmehielle fobbed off such questions, saying it was up to the court itself to decide if Deby should be indicted or called as a witness. And he took indignant exception to what he called the “default position” of such questioners, that all African leaders must be bad.
It’s no doubt a good thing that Habre will finally have his day in court. But whether this case should really be showcased as an appropriate symbol or microcosm of anything larger than itself is doubtful.