AU forms Africa Court

With former Liberian warlord-turned president Charles Taylor now in The Hague facing charges of atrocities against humanity after being captured as he tried to escape from Nigeria where he was staying in exile, all eyes are now on former Chadian President Hiss’ne Habr’.

By Mervin Syafunko

Adding another twist to a six-year drama over the fate of former Chadian presidentt Hissene, who is accused of massive rights abuses, an expert panel of the African Union has recommended that an “African solution” decide his fate, apparently slamming the door on an extradition demanded by Belgium and putting his host country Senegal back in the spotlight.

Answering to this call African Heads of State agreed to the formation of an African Court of Justice and on Monday (3 July 2006) launched the continent’s first court that gives states and people equal rights to challenge governments suspected of human rights violations or other infractions.

The African Court on Human and People’s Rights, established on paper in 1998, will be based in the Tanzanian capital Arusha.

It can apply and rule on any international treaty or law ratified by the state in question, including treaties that do not themselves refer violators to a court. States, AU organs, individuals and non-governmental organisations can all ask for rulings.

Once operational the court will be an alternative to western-driven courts of justice which have been criticized of being biased

Habr’, accused by a group of Chadian victims of being responsible for mass torture, killings and other abuses while president of the north-central African country in the 1980s, has denied any implication in atrocities, and courts in Senegal where he has lived since fleeing a coup in 1990 have twice refused to try him.

Alleged victims of Habr’ in 2001 subsequently filed complaints under Belgium’s universal jurisdiction law, which allows judges in Brussels to prosecute human rights offenders anywhere.

But when a Senegalese court late in 2005 declared it was not competent to rule on the Belgian extradition request, the AU set up a panel to discuss his fate.

At the just ended AU summit African leaders appeared resolute to sorting out their problems without external involvement.

Last Sunday, the AU requested that Senegal tries Habr’, who has been living in exile in Senegal since 1990 and has avoided trial so far because of legal wrangling over jurisdiction.

The heads of State were responding to the panel’s recommendations that Habr’ faces trial either in Senegal or Chad and that African solutions be adopted by the summit.

According to a text of the panel’s report released to AU ministers late on Friday and obtained by IRIN, the panel recommendeds that Habr’ take the stand in either Chad or Senegal, face trial by an ad-hoc tribunal anywhere in Africa, or be subject of a hearing in a court in any of the 45 African states that have ratified the convention against torture.

Running out of patience, in May the UN Committee Against Torture issued a statement giving Senegal 90 days to put Habr’ on trial or send him to Belgium. The Committee said Senegal had broken international human rights rules by not dealing with Habre during the 15 years of his exile there.

Habr”s lawyer El Hadj Diouf told journalists during the AU summit that as a colonialist Belgium was the last place his client would be tried. He accused Belgium of being behind some of the worst human carnage in Africa.

“Belgium is a colonialist. Belgium created a genocide in Rwanda and Congo. Belgium cannot accuse an African man, it is the new colonisation? Why Belgium? Hiss’ne Habr’ is a Chadian.” Said Diouf.

A final decision will be taken by the 52 African heads of state gathered this weekend in the Gambian capital Banjul for an AU summit meeting.

The report said the panel “rejects” total impunity for Habre, even though he is a former head of state, because of the “nature and gravity of the crimes he is accused of.”

But the panel also recommended an “African solution be adopted”, and specified that Habre should only be tried by an African court, pulling the Belgium option off the table.

The panel found that Senegal is the most suitable place to try Habre, the text said, and it added that contrary to the judgement of Senegalese courts, Senegal does have jurisdiction over the case and has an obligation to respect the conditions of the torture convention.

In May, the UN Committee Against Torture issued a statement giving Senegal 90 days to put Habre on trial or send him to Belgium. The Committee said Senegal had broken international human rights rules by not dealing with Habre during the 15 years of his exile there.

Hissene Habre’s lawyer El Hadj Diouf, speaking to reporters on the fringe of the AU summit in Banjul, said: “Senegal is not a colony. Senegal is independent and the justice of Senegal is independent. This case is finished. Habre must stay in Senegal in peace indefinitely.”

Asked why Habre does not want to stand trial in Belgium to clear his name, Diouf said: There are however elements of objection to the AU decision to have Habr’ tried in Africa.

Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer for torture victims in Chad, was disappointed with the decision. She said the claimants were already concerned about the time their case had taken to be heard and that the decision would drag it out even longer.

“Belgium is a colonialist. Belgium created a genocide in Rwanda and Congo. Belgium cannot accuse an African man, it is the new colonisation. Why Belgium? Hissein Habre is a Chadian.”

A counsel with one of the American groups that have beens pushinged hardest for Habr”s trial, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, said: “The important thing is the victims get their day in court and Habr’ gets a fair trial. We would have preferred that Habr’ be tried in Belgium only because Senegal has betrayed the victims twice. And because Belgium has now spent four years preparing and investigating the dossier.”

However AU has allayed such fears and is confident that the Africa Court will be effective and toothy. “This court will strengthen jurisprudence and contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights in the continent,” AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Julia Joiner told foreign correspondents at the end of the summit.

“It means you have another level where states and people can seek recourse before the African Commission [on Human and People’s Rights] and prosecutions can be made, not just judgments and resolutions,” she said.

In June, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was extradited from Sierra Leone to The Hague to answer to war crime charges.

The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone retains jurisdiction. Officials in Liberia and Sierra Leone feared Taylor could destabilize the region if he were tried locally.



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