- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS (AP) - Belgium began World Court proceedings Monday against Senegal in an effort to bring one of Africa’s most notorious former dictators to trial.

Belgium claims Senegal breached international law by failing to put former Chad President Hissene Habre on trial for alleged widespread human rights abuses during his eight-year reign.

A Chadian commission of inquiry concluded Habre’s regime killed at least 3,780 political opponents, but added that the figure likely represents only 10 percent of his victims, Belgian lawyer Eric David told the International Court of Justice.

Habre has lived in exile in an upscale villa in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, since rebels ousted him from power in 1990 and Senegal pledged in 2006 to bring him to justice under an African Union mandate.

However authorities in Dakar now argue they cannot afford to stage the trial, David added, and have warned they may release Habre if no funds are forthcoming.

If the international community refuses to fund a Habre trial, “then Senegal is going to wash its hands of Hissene Habre,” David said, citing three recent media interviews given by Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade. “This is an urgent threat,” he added.

Belgian nationals of Chadian descent also have filed a case against Habre but Senegal has so far refused to extradite the former dictator to Brussels despite an international arrest warrant on charges of torture, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The World Court case is likely to take years. On Monday, its judges began considering Belgium’s request for an interim order to Senegal to keep Habre under house arrest to prevent him fleeing. The court will likely issue a decision on the request within weeks.

“Belgium is coming to the court to remind Senegal that it has a legal obligation to either prosecute or extradite Hissene Habre,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “This judicial and political soap opera has gone on long enough.”

A court in Chad last year convicted Habre in absentia and sentenced him to death for crimes against the state.

The World Court hears cases between U.N. member states and does not prosecute individuals. Deciding Habre’s guilt or innocence will likely fall to a Senegalese or Belgian court.

El Hadj Diouf, Habre’s Senegal-based lawyer, called the international court suit a “new kind of judicial imperialism” and said Brussels must leave the case to Senegal.

Brody said that by putting Habre on trial Senegal can prove that African courts can try local leaders accused of atrocities.

“We are in a very critical time for the world of international justice where many voices, particularly in Africa, are complaining about seeing accused Africans tried outside Africa,” Brody said.

As he spoke, lawyers for Charles Taylor were arguing in a separate courtroom in The Hague that the former Liberian president should be acquitted of charges of masterminding atrocities in Sierra Leone, and a Congolese warlord was being tried in yet another Hague-based court for using child soldiers.

“Here is the occasion for Senegal to show that African countries have the capacity to deliver justice for African victims of crimes committed in Africa,” said Brody.

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