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Senegal gives up Habre expulsion, Belgium moots trial

Senegal reversed a decision to send former dictator Hissene Habre to Chad, where he faces the death penalty for alleged rights abuses, after the UN rights chief said he could be tortured there.

Hours before he had been due to board a plane back to Chad’s capital N’Djamena in what Habre, through his lawyer, had described as a “kidnapping”, his west African hosts eventually caved in to mounting international pressure.

“Senegal has decided to suspend the expulsion measure against Hissene Habre,” Senegal’s Foreign Minister Madicke Niang said late Sunday, a move welcomed by opponents of the death penalty.

Niang said Dakar would launch urgent talks with the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union to seek a solution.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday that, “according to modalities which the Senegalese government will have to work out, Hissene Habre, in any event, should have a fair trial.”

On Monday, the Belgian foreign ministry announced that it would broach the option with Senegal’s ambassador of trying Habre in Belgium, for crimes against humanity.

Belgium has wanted to try Habre since 2005, when it issued an international arrest warrant against him for “serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

The extradition request is based on a criminal suit lodged by a Belgian of Chadian origin, who took advantage of the country’s “universal competence” law enabling Belgian courts to try people for crimes under international law, provided one or several citizens of Belgian nationality are involved.

Belgium has gone to the International Court of Justice over the case with a view to obtaining Habre’s extradition. A ruling is still pending.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay had urged Senegal to reconsider its decision to send the 69-year-old home to face justice for alleged atrocities, arguing there were insufficient guarantees of a fair trial.

“As a party to the Convention Against Torture,” Pillay said, “Senegal may not extradite a person to a state where there are substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

Habre ruled Chad from 1982 until 1990, when he was ousted by incumbent President General Idriss Deby Itno and fled into exile in Senegal, where he has been living since.

A 1992 truth commission report in Chad said Habre had presided over 40,000 political murders and widespread torture.

In 2008, a court there sentenced him to death for crimes against humanity following a trial held in his absence.

Chad meanwhile expressed its “profound regret” over the U-turn saying “all measures had been taken to ensure Hissene Habre’s security and a fair trial.”

Government spokesman Kalzeube Pahimi underscored the need for a trial “to render justice to the memory of the victims and to console” their families.

Before the latest development, Habre had told him “he would only return to Chad in a coffin… and fight his expulsion with every last drop of blood.”

Habre was charged in Senegal in February 2000, but the indictment was dismissed by a Dakar appeals court on the basis that crimes against humanity were not part of Senegalese criminal law.

Senegal subsequently amended its penal code. But no trial ever started in spite of an African Union mandate for the country to try Habre, partly because Senegal wanted guarantees that it would not have to foot the bill.

Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch welcomed Senegal’s latest decision in a statement late Sunday.

“We are glad that President (Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal) has called off this ill-conceived transfer, but it can’t be a pretext to continue denying Habre’s victims their day in court,” he said.

“Senegal has shielded Habre from justice for 20 years. Habre’s extradition to Belgium is now the only option for ensuring that he responds to the charges against him in a fair trial.”