DAKAR, Senegal – Senegal officially launched its tribunal investigating former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre for alleged crimes against humanity on Friday, a move rights groups called a decisive turning point in the campaign to bring him to justice.
The tribunal, authorized by the African Union and approved by a vote in Senegal's parliament, marks a major step toward Africa dealing with its own alleged war criminals. Court administrator Cire Aly Ba announced the commencement of the work Friday.
"We are going to have a fair and just process," Ba said. "We also need to think about all of the victims who could not be here to experience these moments."
Habre faces accusations of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes during his rule of Chad from 1982 to 1990. He has enjoyed 22 years of impunity after fleeing to Senegal — leaving behind a country strewn with mass graves.
A Chadian truth commission 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.
"I have awaited this day for 22 years," said Souleymane Guengueng, who suffered for three years in prison under Habre and who was a founder for the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissene Habre's Regime. "I want to see Habre brought to justice before more victims die."
Alioune Tine, the president of a Senegalese rights group said the country can hold its head high today.
"My country is setting an example for the rest of Africa in proving that Africans can take care of their own problems," Tine said.
Senegal's parliament adopted a law in December that created the special tribunal to try Habre, the first step to end his impunity. 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.
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. Belgium has offered to help finance the cost of special African tribunals within Senegal's court system.
Four chambers with judges appointed by the Senegalese government and Africa Union are mandated with prosecuting Habre and those responsible for crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990. A start date for the trial has not yet been set. The inquiry is expected to take at least 15 months.