Opponents want Chad dictator tried in Belgium

March 11, 2012 - 9:15 AM

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Souleymane Guengueng still doesn't like talking about his nearly three years as a political prisoner of former Chad dictator Hissene Habre, but he recalls having to rest his head on the corpses of fellow detainees in his crowded cell.

The haunting memories drove him to form an association of victims of one of Africa's most brutal dictatorships and he is now hoping a case at the United Nations' highest court will bring Habre a step closer to prosecution.

Hearings start Monday at the International Court of Justice in a case that boils down to Belgium seeking an order for Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habre.

Habre, 69, has lived in a villa in Senegal's capital, Dakar, since rebels ousted him in 1990 after a ruthless eight-year reign.

Senegal has pledged for years to bring him to justice, but survivors long ago lost faith that authorities have the political will to put Habre on trial and are instead pinning their hopes on Belgium, which indicted him in 2005 for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture.

A Chadian commission of inquiry concluded Habre's regime killed tens of thousands of political opponents. A court in Chad has convicted him in absentia of crimes against the state and sentenced him to death.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, Habre seized power in 1982, in part thanks to U.S. support, because he opposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's attempts to influence Chad. He swiftly established a brutal dictatorship to stamp out any opposition, but was finally toppled by current Chad President Idriss Deby in 1990.

"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."

Survivors of the state-sponsored brutality are now hoping the world court will order Senegal to extradite Habre to Belgium.

Belgium indicted Habre under universal jurisdiction, a legal doctrine which effectively says that some crimes are so heinous they can be prosecuted anywhere.

The court is likely to take months to deliver its ruling.

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."

Speaking to reporters in The Hague, Moudeina said time is running out, with survivors growing old and dying as they wait for justice. She said 11 members of a victims' organization died last year.

Guengueng says he was arrested while working in Cameroon for an organization called the Lake Chad Basin Commission. He was considered anti-Habre because many rebels also were based in Cameroon at the time, he said.

He was finally freed when Habre was ousted — after almost three years in overcrowded cells in which prisoners sometimes died and their bodies were not immediately removed. He still wears glasses after being imprisoned for long periods in total darkness, followed by long periods of bright light, he said.

"As victims, our only hope and desire is to see Hissene Habre extradited to Belgium so we can learn the truth," he said. "That would be ... a kind of cure for victims who are still alive today."