DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Senegal's national assembly adopted a much-anticipated law on Wednesday which creates a special tribunal to try ex-Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, the first step in ending 22 years of impunity that began when the deposed former president fled to Senegal, leaving behind a country strewn with mass graves.
The statute gives the Senegalese president the right to ratify an accord with the African Union, creating the tribunal, which will act as a chamber within the larger Senegalese court system. Rights groups have been pushing Senegal for decades to try Habre, and the regime of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade, who was ousted in this year's election, was accused of purposely dragging its feet.
Early on, Wade argued that Senegal did not have the laws on its books to allow the country to try someone like Habre. Later he argued that Senegal could not afford such a trial. Senegalese newspapers have long speculated that Habre used the millions of dollars he stole from Chad's treasury to pay off Senegalese officials in order to secure his freedom in exile. The creation of the court comes just eight months after Wade was forced out of office.
Habre was the president of Chad from 1982 until 1990, when he was deposed in a coup by the country's current leader. He is accused of mass atrocities and in 1992, the Chadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided evidence indicating he had carried out some 40,000 political murders. Over the past two decades, Habre has become a symbol of whether or not Africa is able to try its own.
Lawmaker Cheikh Seck said he voted for the law specifically because it shows that Africa can hold its own leaders accountable.
"It's not up to the West to try Hissene Habre. It's why I voted in favor of this law," he said. "I am voting this law so that African presidents know to watch out," said Seck.
Moustapha Diakhate, another parliamentarian said that the tribunal will allow Habre, who has always proclaimed his innocence, to have his day in court.
"This law is founded on Senegal's responsibilities. The judgment will allow Mr. Habre to wash his name (should he be proven innocent). And it will allow Senegal to maintain its status as a country that is fighting against impunity," he said.
Around a dozen lawmakers belonging to the party of ex-President Wade abstained. Only two deputies out of the 150-seat assembly voted against the law. One of them, El Hadji Diouf, is also Habre's personal lawyer and part of the legal defense team working for the ex-Chadian leader. He argued that Senegal does not have the jurisdiction to pass such a law.
The only other "no" vote was from deputy Sokhna Dieng Mbacke, who said the proposed tribunal goes against Senegal's tradition of "Teranga," a word in the local Wolof language meaning 'hospitality.'
"The Senegalese tradition of hospitality does not permit me to vote in favor of this law. Habre is our guest. He lives among us. And there is nothing to guarantee that the tribunal will be just," he said.
The news was welcomed by the ex-leader's alleged victims.
"I have been waiting to see Hissene Habre face justice for over 22 years", said Clement Abaifouta, President of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissene Habre's Regime, who as a political prisoner under Habre, was forced to dig mass graves and bury hundreds of other detainees. "We are finally going to be able to confront our executioner and regain our dignity as human beings."