Hissene Habre was once dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet,” a sobriquet that reflected the hope that former Chadian dictator would face international justice for crimes committed during his reign.
In the end, the former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet died leaving behind numerous incomplete court cases. As for Habre – accused of having presided over 40,000 political murders and widespread torture in his Central African homeland – he has turned into a symbol of Africa's failure to prosecute its former leaders.
Over the past few days, that failure appeared to sink to new lows with a relay of controversial decisions, international outcries and decision-reversals that has exposed Africa in the worst possible light – as a continent sidestepping universal justice while expecting the West to foot the bills.
The latest act in the Habre saga opened late on Friday, when Senegal announced that the former Chadian dictator would be allowed to return home, a surprise decision that left Chadian ministers “astonished”.
But under intense international pressure, Senegal backtracked on Sunday, just hours before Habre was to board a flight to his native Chad, a reversal that was promptly welcomed by the international community. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has warned that Habre would not recieve a fair trial in Chad.
Habre has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990, when he was overthrown by current Chadian President Idriss Deby after an eight-year reign marked by widespread atrocities.
For two decades, as the families of his victims sought to bring him to justice either in Senegal or elsewhere, the former dictator famed for his signature flowing white ensemble has lived largely freely in the West African country, turning him into a symbol of impunity in Africa.
A ‘legal soap opera’
The long history of 69-year-old’s legal case includes a slew of charges, indictments, and extradition requests in three countries, which led South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to dub it an "interminable political and legal soap opera" – one that requires tabulated chronologies to navigate the labyrinths of international law.
The crux of the “legal soap opera” has been Senegal’s reluctance to bring Habre to justice, leading Amnesty International to criticise the West African nation for its “contempt for the rule of law” and its “culture of impunity”.
According to human rights advocate Reed Brody of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, political considerations lie at the heart of Senegal’s reluctance to act on the case.
“It’s no secret that when Hissene Habre left Chad, he emptied out the country’s treasury and has used the money to build himself a web of protection in Senegal,” he said in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Over the past two decades, Habre’s legal team has included the current Senegalese foreign minister, Madicke Niang, as well as current Senegalese Prime Minister Souleymane Ndéné Ndiaye, noted Brody.
In 2000, shortly before seven Chadian victims filed a criminal complaint in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, a committee of NGOs met with the Senegalese justice minister, who assured them there would be no political interference from the executive.
But the Habre case is littered with instances of executive interference and clear conflicts of interest.
Just months after Senegalese judge Demba Kandji indicted Habré in 2000, he was removed from the Habre investigation.
Reacting to the transfer, Brody noted that there “can be no doubt that his [Kandji’s] transfer was a reprisal for the handling of the Habre case.”
In 2005, following the systemic failure to get Habre tried in Senegal, some of the victims – who had since acquired Belgian citizenship – filed a case in Belgian courts.
FRANCE 24's Meabh McMahon reporting from Brussels -July 11, 2011
Shortly thereafter, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for Habre, but Senegal has so far refused to extradite him.
The latest twist in the Habre saga followed an African Union decision earlier this month stating that it was "incumbent on Senegal in accordance with its international obligations to take steps to bring Hissene Habre to trial, or extradite him."
‘I will get rid of this’
But Senegal’s decision last week to send Habre back to Chad was “close to the worst option,” according Brody, one that displeased both the victims and the defendant.
Reacting to the announcement, one of Habre’s lawyers said his client has maintained that "he would only return to Chad in a coffin”.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the victims rallied behind the UN human rights commissioner’s call on Senegal to reconsider Habre’s expulsion to Chad, noting that the 69-year-old former leader was unlikely to receive a fair trail in his homeland.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 and RFI (Radio France International) over the weekend, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade was candid about his government’s reasons for making the surprise move.
"Frankly, I regret accepting [the case] because I have not found the support I was looking for [from the international community]," he said. "I will return [Habré] somewhere. I'm telling you very clearly: I will get rid of this.”
[Click here for the interview in French ]
From legal arguments to funding 'excuses'
Given Wade’s stated aim to get rid of the Habre case, experts are puzzled over his government assiduous attempts to drag the case.
“Senegal has persistently thrown up one obstacle after another,” said Brody.
Initially, Senegal maintained that it did not have the jurisdiction to hold a trial. But once the country’s laws were changed, Dakar said it lacked the funds.
“First, Senegal used a legal argument, but that was subsequently dispersed with. Then funding was the excuse for two to three years until the funding came in,” said Brody.
At an international donors conference in Dakar last November, donors came up with more than $11 million to cover the cost of Habre’s trial.
So what’s stopping Senegal from passing the Habre buck on to Belgium?
“Nothing’s stopping them,” said Reed, who has been spearheading the case for the past 11 years. “The excuse presented was that it would be wrong to send an African leader to Europe. We all agree with that. But after 20 years, Africa has shown that it’s not in a position to do that.”