Leading the Charge
October 3, 2005
A U.S. human rights lawyer who campaigns to bring ex-dictators accused of atrocities to justice has set his sights on snaring a former U.S.-backed ruler of Chad he calls “Africa’s Pinochet.”
Reed Brody, special counsel for prosecutions for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, arrived in Senegal this weekend on a mission to persuade its government to grant Belgium‘s request for the extradition of Hissene Habre, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990.
A Brussels magistrate last month issued an international arrest warrant for Habre, now 63, who has lived in exile in Senegal for the last 15 years. The Belgian warrant holds Habre responsible for mass murder and torture carried out by his political police during his rule in Chad.
Brody, who was also involved in trying to obtain the extradition to Spain of Augusto Pinochet during the former Chilean dictator’s temporary arrest in Britain in 1998, has been tracking Habre for several years.
He believes the Belgian extradition move may finally bring the former Chadian president to prosecution.
“We have the law on our side, Belgian law, Senegalese extradition law, all provide that he can be extradited to Belgium,” Brody said in an interview Sunday.
“We hope that through this case we can also break that cycle in which African rulers brutalize their people, pillage the treasury and then just go to some other country and live in a seaside villa,” he told Reuters.
Brody recalled former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who died in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, and former Zairean president Mobutu Sese Seko, who died in Morocco in 1997. Both faced accusations of human rights abuses that went unpunished.
In 2000, a Senegalese court charged Habre with torture and crimes against humanity but later ruled he could not be tried there.
“Having failed to prosecute him, it’s now Senegal’s legal international obligation to extradite him to a country where he can be tried,” said Brody, who plans to meet Senegalese officials over the next week.
On Monday, Senegal’s Foreign Affairs Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio said it was up to the country’s justice system to give its independent opinion on the extradition request.
He told foreign journalists his government had no preconceptions but added: “It is a very sensitive issue.”
Brussels magistrate Daniel Fransen issued the September 19 arrest warrant for Habre under the country‘s universal jurisdiction law which allows Belgian judges to prosecute human rights violations no matter where these were committed.
The law was watered down in 2003 but this case was allowed because at least one of the plaintiffs is a Belgian citizen.
Habre‘s lawyer has in the past said that the former president denied the accusations against him.
Brody, who says he unearthed abandoned political police files in Chad in 2001 detailing the deaths in detention of 1,208 individuals, plans to bring to Senegal Chadians who suffered torture under Habre‘s rule.
“It’s not going to be easy . . . Hissene Habre is alleged to have stolen millions of dollars from the Chadian treasury and he has used that money and continues to use that money to buy influence and protection within Senegalese society,” Brody said.
But he added Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade had said on several occasions he was willing to extradite Habre.
He justified the comparison of Habre with Pinochet by saying that, apart from the human rights cases against both of them, the Chadian ruler emulated his Latin American counterpart by also coming to power with U.S. support.
“Hissene Habre was put into power by the United States, his regime was backed to the very end by the U.S.,” Brody said.
He says the administration of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan backed Habre as a bulwark against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was viewed by Washington as a threat.
(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba)