Senegal suspends extradition of former Chadian dictator

Senegal yielded to UN pressure not to extradite Hissene Habre, who is wanted in Chad for human rights violations. The UN and other international groups fear he will be tortured and executed in Chad.

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
In this 1987 file photo, Chad's president Hissene Habre is pictured in N'Djamena.

Late last week, Senegal readied itself to extradite former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré back to his home country, where he has been sentenced to death.

For months, international organizations like the United Nations have been pressuring Senegal to act on Mr. Habré’s case, and either try him there or hand him over to another court. Habré has been living in Senegal, under various indictments, since 1990.

Many feel, myself included, that Habré’s case will set important precedents regarding accountability for leaders, not just in Africa but around the world. AP writes that Habré “has become a symbol of impunity.”

The importance of the case increases outsiders’ concerns that it be administered fairly. Hence the UN objected to the plan to send Habré back to Chad:

“I urge the Government of Senegal to review its decision and to ensure that Habré’s extradition is carried out in a way that ensures his fair trial rights will be respected and he will not be subjected to torture or the death penalty,” said Ms. [Navi] Pillay [the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights].

“As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Senegal may not extradite a person to a State where there are substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being subjected to torture. At the very least Senegal must obtain fair trial guarantees from the Government of Chad before any extradition takes place,” she added.

Ms. Pillay said extraditing Mr. Habré in the present circumstances, in which those guarantees are not yet in place, may amount to a violation of international law.

Yesterday Senegal bowed to the pressure and agreed to suspend the extradition.

Senegal’s Foreign Minister Madicke Niang on Sunday announced the government had reversed its decision to return Mr Habre following the UN plea.

Mr Niang told state broadcaster RTS that Senegal would hold talks with the UN and European Union to try to solve the situation.

These events raise familiar questions about international law and national sovereignty. I think we become so used to such debates that it’s easy to forget how blatantly the international community, and in particular European leaders, dismiss the integrity of a judicial system like Chad’s. I believe the UN is right that sending Habré to Chad could result in his torture and execution and in a perversion of justice, and I understand that one of the foundations of international law is the idea that some (all?) countries have issues they cannot handle properly on their own, but it is striking to see international organizations articulate their distrust of individual countries so clearly.

That kind of distrust has implications that go beyond just Habré’s case. Other leaders recognize those implications. In other words, the politics of international law loom particularly large in this case, which helps explain why Senegal has preferred to keep Habré in a sort of legal limbo, or try to make him someone else’s problem, rather than moving to conclude the case. Habré is a symbol of impunity, but he is also a symbol of how hard it is, in the international legal arena, to sort out questions of when, where, and how major trials will take place.

--- Alex Thurston blogs on the African Sahel region at Sahel Blog.

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