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Belgium seeks world court order on ex-Chad leader

March 12, 2012

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Lawyers for Belgium urged the United Nations’ highest court Monday to order Senegal to prosecute former Chad dictator Hissene Habre or extradite him for trial for allegedly masterminding atrocities during his brutal eight-year rule.

Habre has lived in a luxury villa in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, since rebels ousted him 1990 and has become a symbol of Africa’s inability to try leaders from the continent accused of rights abuses.

The case at the International Court of Justice is about “taking a stand against impunity in the most serious crimes in international law,” Belgian representative Paul Rietjens told judges in the wood-paneled Great Hall of Justice.

Belgium indicted Habre in 2005 for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture based on complaints by survivors of his regime, some of whom have Belgian citizenship, but has failed to persuade Senegal to extradite him to Brussels despite repeated requests.

“These victims are entitled to see the person they accuse of these crimes brought to justice,” Rietjens said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Belgium accuses Senegal of breaching its obligations under the convention that says countries holding people accused of torture have a duty to either prosecute or extradite them.

“Senegal has been and continues to be in breach of its obligations under the torture convention,” said lawyer Sir Michael Wood.

Senegal will present its arguments starting Thursday and judges are likely to take months to reach a decision. International Court of Justice rulings are binding.

Senegal’s chief representative Cheikh Tidiane Thiam said after Monday’s hearing that his country was moving as fast as it could.

“Senegal is doing its best in a timeframe we consider reasonable,” he told reporters outside court.

The African Union last year urged Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habre. Days later, Dakar said it would send him back to Chad, where he has been convicted in his absence of crimes against the state and sentenced to death.

That announcement caused an uproar as activists feared he would not get a fair trial at home and days later, Senegal backtracked on the threat to deport Habre.

Despite repeatedly saying it wants to put Habre on trial, Senegal has dragged its feet for years, arguing it needs outside help to fund the case.

After initially saying a trial would cost up to euro29 million, Senegal agreed at a donor’s conference in 2010 to a budget of euro8.6 million ($11.3 million).

“Senegalese authorities have still not taken any concrete action to investigate or prosecute,” said Gerard Dive of Belgium’s federal justice service.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Habre seized power in 1982 and swiftly established a brutal dictatorship to stamp out any opposition, but was finally toppled by current Chad President Idriss Deby in 1990.

A Chadian commission of inquiry concluded Habre’s regime killed and tortured tens of thousands of political opponents.

“Under Habre, a wife was afraid of her husband and vice versa and they were both afraid of their children,” said lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, who represents survivors of Habre’s regime. “Chadians were afraid of their own shadow.”

Habre’s Senegal-based lawyer El Hadj Diouf has called the international court case a “new kind of judicial imperialism” and said Belgium should give Senegal the chance to try Habre.

But activists say Senegal has had more than enough time and now the world court should turn over the case to Belgium.

“For us, the case is ... what we would call in America a slam dunk,” said Reed Brody, a Human Rights Watch activist who has long fought for justice for Habre’s victims. “Senegal has an obligation to prosecute or extradite. It has been 21 years and they have not done it.”

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