DAKAR — Senegal has been urged to act fast and try ex-Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, after an agreement to create a special tribunal in Dakar to judge him for war crimes 22 years after he left power.
"We are one step closer to justice today," said Alioune Tine, president of the Dakar-based African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), in a statement on Thursday.
"We're counting on Senegal and the African Union to move quickly now and to begin Habre's trial before even more survivors die."
Senegal and the African Union (AU) on Wednesday signed an agreement in Dakar to create a special tribunal to try Habre, who has been living in Senegal since fleeing his country in 1990 after being ousted by President Idriss Deby Itno.
A 1992 truth commission report in Chad said that during his time in power, Habre presided over up to 40,000 political murders and widespread torture.
Chadian Justice Minister Abdoulaye Sabour Fadoul said Thursday he welcomed the tribunal's creation.
"It's a great joy to all Chad's people, particularly the victims who have been waiting for an agreement since 2000," he said.
"Finally we can get down to serious matters. This is the first time in 20 years that we can talk of the concrete acts (committed) in this case."
Outman Moussa, president of a support group for victims of Habre's regime, praised the "notable step forward toward judging Habre on African soil".
While mandated by the AU to put Habre on trial in 2006, Senegal dragged its feet for years under former president Abdoulaye Wade, citing problems in jurisdiction and then funding.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ordered Senegal to either try Habre or extradite him after Belgium said it wanted to judge him.
Events took on a new momentum last month under Senegal's new President Macky Sall, who said he had a "strong commitment" to see Senegal try Habre.
Four days of talks in Dakar produced a draft agreement in July between the AU and the Senegalese government on the creation of extraordinary African chambers within the Senegalese court structure.
"Through the agreement, we are setting the procedure by which the trial should take place... there are no more obstacles," said Senegal's Justice Minister Aminata Toure after signing the agreement with African Union representative Robert Dossou.
The court should be operational by the end of the year.
But one of Habre's victims, 50-year-old Bourkar Bernard, said he doubted the fairness of a trial in Senegal.
"I don't think that truth will be told in Senegal since Hissene Habre's relations with the Senegalese people are too close. It will influence the verdict. He should be extradited to Belgium," he said.
The court chambers will have four sections to handle instruction, investigations, trials and appeals, and will consist of Senegalese and other African judges.
One of Habre's lawyers, Francois Serres, condemned the move as "perfectly illegal". He said the AU did not have the status to "give a country a mandate to judge" and that it was up to the United Nations to do so.
Serres also said the agreement violated a 2010 decision by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) court which said only Senegal could try Habre. He said he would take the matter back to the regional court.
A key challenge to starting the trial will be funding.
In 2010, some 8.6 million euros ($10 million) was pledged by several western European nations, the AU and Chad for the holding of the trial but never paid after Wade said he wanted to "get rid of" the case.
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