Global Policy Forum

AU Legal Panel Winds up Closed-Door Talks

Integrated Regional Information Networks
May 25, 2006

A panel of African lawyers has ended three days of closed-door talks to decide whether and how former Chadian president Hissene Habre should be tried for alleged crimes during his time in office from 1982 to 1990. The seven lawyers were appointed by the African Union to discuss "all possible options" on Habre's fate ahead of the pan-African body's next summit in July, but an AU source said their findings would not immediately be made public. "The recommendations of the committee will have to be submitted to the assembly of heads of state and government before they can be released to the public," a member of the AU told IRIN under condition of anonymity. "They have to be protected from any kind of pressure."

A ruling to place the former Chadian head of state on trial for atrocities committed during his stay in office would break new legal ground in Africa. Habre is currently living in exile in Senegal and is wanted for trial in Belgium, but a Senegalese court late last year declared itself incompetent to rule on his extradition. Dakar subsequently asked the AU for a ruling.

Ahead of this week's key consultations, the panel of lawyers was asked "to consider all aspects and implications of the Hissí¨ne Habré case as well as the options available for his trial. "They were asked to take into account a series of benchmarks decided by the AU, including the "adherence to the principles of total rejection of impunity", "adherence to international fair trial standards", "accessibility to the trial by alleged victims as well as witnesses" and "priority for an African mechanism".

The deliberations took place as the UN Committee Against Torture issued a statement giving Senegal 90 days to put Habre on trial or send him to Belgium to face a court. The committee said Senegal had broken international human rights rules by not dealing with Habre during the 15 years of his exile there. Alleged Chadian victims of Habre have filed complaints under Belgium's universal jurisdiction law, which allows judges in Brussels to prosecute human rights offences anywhere. Habre has denied any implication in atrocities.

Meanwhile in Chad itself, a respected lawyer who was president of the country's commission of inquiry into Habre's alleged war crimes, said the AU was not competent to deliver a ruling on the case and that Senegal had simply referred the matter to the AU to wash its hands of the affair. Mahamat Hassan Abakar, whose comments were printed in the daily newspaper Le Progres, said: "The African Union made a mistake in accepting the Habre case...The African Union is not competent to take on this case because it is incompetent. Ask the African Union on what basis it is taking on this case?"

He also said that most of the legal experts asked to examine the case by the AU did not know the case well enough. "Senegal is trying by all means to gain time and make sure everyone forgets about Habre. Yet its international responsibilities vis a vis the convention against torture are obvious."

"The only decision the group of experts could rightfully make would be to say - Senegal must place him on trial or extradite him, and sending the matter on the African Union is illegal." "Any other solution would not be lawful," he concluded.

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