DAKAR, Senegal – The United Nations' highest court on Friday ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, who has lived in luxury in this seaside capital for more than two decades amid accusations that he ordered political opponents to be tortured or killed.
A truth commission in the Central African nation of Chad has accused Habre of more than 40,000 political killings during his eight-year rule, and a court there already has sentenced him to death in absentia.
Human rights activists heralded the International Court of Justice's move, saying that the survivors of Habre's 1982-1990 rule have waited long enough to see their day in court. Many fear that time could run out to try the former ruler who turns 70 this year.
"Today's decision is a huge victory for Hissene Habre's victims who have been fighting for justice for 21 years. This tenacity and perseverance has paid off today," said Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch who has pushed for Habre's prosecution for 13 years.
"It's also a very strong message to the new authorities in Senegal that they have to move without further delay to fulfill their promise to bring Hissene Habre to justice at long last."
The former ruler sought refuge in this western African nation after being ousted from power in Chad, keeping a low-profile while living in a posh villa in an upscale neighborhood.
He has since become a symbol of impunity in Africa, living freely in Senegal despite an indictment on charges of crimes against humanity.
In 2005, Belgium indicted Habre based on complaints filed there by survivors of his regime. Brussels then brought Senegal before the court in The Hague after Senegalese authorities failed to extradite him. Habre's Senegalese-based lawyer dismissed the international court's ruling as a "new kind of judicial imperialism."
Senegal has dragged its feet for years, arguing it needs outside help to fund the case. After initially saying a trial would cost up to €29 million, Senegal agreed at a donor's conference in 2010 to a budget of €8.6 million.
Critics say that Habre used money from his country's treasury to buy influence and protection in Senegal. A new Senegalese president was inaugurated earlier this year, and Macky Sall's government has promised to push ahead with proceedings against Habre.
But Senegal argued in court hearings in March that it is working toward putting Habre on trial and its representative in court said Friday that the country's position has not changed.
"The ICJ is agreeing with Senegal's contention that Habre should be prosecuted," Cheikh Tidiane Thiam said.
Abdourahmane Gueye, 65, who spent six harrowing months in a Chadian prison, welcomed Friday's ruling but said he still preferred that Habre face justice in Belgium because of a long-standing "lack of willpower" in Senegal.
Gueye, a Senegalese businessman, was visiting the Chadian capital in 1987 when he was arrested at the airport and accused of espionage. His colleague died after four months inside the prison, where temperatures soared to 50 degrees Celsius.
"We ate like dogs. I saw people being tortured and others who were taken away and never returned," he said.
"I pray to God that Hissene will be tried. The director of police was his nephew. I would like to face him and ask why was I arrested? It was him that gave the orders."
On Friday, the International Court of Justice ruled that Senegal had breached the U.N.'s torture convention by failing to prosecute Habre. The decision also adds legal weight to the international torture convention, as the case marked the first time it had been tested in the United Nations' highest judicial organ since the convention came into force in 1987.
"This is a long-overdue victory for victims and now it's high time the courts in Senegal delivered justice," said Michael Bochenek, Amnesty International's law and policy program director.
Friday's ruling is binding, and Belgium could go to the U.N. Security Council for help in enforcing the order if Senegal fails to comply.
Belgian representative Gerard Dive said Senegal should now act on the court's clear instructions.
"There is no reason to doubt that Senegal will fulfill its obligations," he said. But he added: "It is important to underscore that the court mentioned it will judge Senegal on its actions."
Brody, of Human Rights Watch, said the ruling also should send a message to other leaders who torture their people. But he urged Senegalese authorities to move swiftly.
"It's been 21 years that the victims have been fighting for justice and in that time many of them of course have died," he said. "So it is really important that Senegal take heed of this ruling and bring Habre to justice while the victims are still alive."
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press writer Tomas Faye in Dakar, Senegal contributed reporting.