Belgium indicts former Chad dictator accused of humanitarian crimes

Friday, September 30, 2005 Human Rights groups have welcomed the indictment in Belgium of Hissène Habré, former dictator of Chad. Habré, described by the organisation Human Rights Watch as "the African Pinochet", ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990. He now stands accused of "crimes against humanity" over a series of abuses allegedly committed during his tenure.

A 1992 "Truth Commission" in Chad heard evidence of systematic torture by Habré's government, and accused the regime of more than 40,000 killings. But the government of Chad, which until very recently, according to Human Rights Watch, included many of Habré's former associates, has never made any attempt to prosecute him.

Habré, who currently lives in Senegal, was arrested by the authorities there in 2000, charged with torture and crimes against humanity. But the following year the Senegalese high court ruled that Habré could not be prosecuted for crimes committed in another country.

Every state has the right under international law, to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, wherever those crimes were committed.

In practice, Belgium is one of the few countries in the world to have enacted legislation enabling their domestic courts to exercise this right.

In June 2001, four Rwandans were convicted by a Belgian court, under the country's "universal jurisdiction" law, of participating in the 1994 genocide (recently portrayed in the film "Hotel Rwanda").

Belgium recently amended the law to reduce its scope, after a series of highly-controversial attempts to bring cases against serving world leaders, including the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But a number of cases that had already begun were allowed to continue, including the case against Habré.

The government of Senegal recently detained Habré to prevent him from fleeing, following pressure from the United Nations. Belgium has now issued an extradition request.