Calling him "Africa's Pinochet," human rights groups and individuals who say they were tortured under the rule of Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, are trying to prosecute him in Senegal, where Habre has lived in exile since 1990.
The effort aims to test the universality of the legal doctrine that led Britain to consider the extradition of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain to face changes in connection with crimes allegedly committed during his 17-year rule, a process that was sidetracked this month because of questions about Pinochet's health.
While accused despots the world over have reportedly been monitoring the Pinochet case, human rights advocates say the new emphasis on accountability is especially important in Africa, where cycles of violence persist largely because the rule of law is weak.
"Do the principles of international justice apply only in Europe, or do they apply in Africa as well?" asked Reed Brody advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group that has organized the effort against Habre. "Can an African country like Senegal do the same thing that Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, France and England did in Europe in the case of Pinochet?"
During Habre's eight-year rule in Chad, a West African country of 6 million south of Libya, his secret police allegedly killed tens of thousands of people and tortured as many as 200,000. An undetermined number of others disappeared.
Samuel Togoto, 53, said that during two years in custody, his arms and legs were bound behind his back for so long that he became paralyzed. He said he was led blindfolded to an open grave and threatened with death unless he confessed to opposing Habre's regime. He refused and was freed when Habre fled.
"What I saw in prison is beyond human belief," Togoto said in a telephone interview from Dakar, the Senegalese capital. He was among seven Chadians filing criminal charges against Habre, in concert with the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime, which represents 792 people. In Senegalese courts, which are modeled on those of France, private parties may bring criminal charges.
"I'm doing this in order that this kind of thing never happens again," Togoto said.
The complaint, submitted Tuesday to an investigating magistrate in Dakar, detailed 97 allegations of political killings, 142 cases of torture and 100 disappearances. The complaint asks the magistrate to arrest Habre, 57, who came to Senegal with $11 million and a plane that Chad later reclaimed.
Despite his human rights record, the dictator enjoyed U.S. support because he opposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Habre was deposed in 1990 by Chad's current president, Idriss Deby, who initially established a military government but held--and won--an election in 1996.
Habre is among several former dictators who rights groups say should be brought to justice under the Pinochet precedent. Idi Amin, as self-proclaimed emperor of Uganda in the 1970s, oversaw an estimated 300,000 political killings before finding refuge in Saudi Arabia, where Brody said the government has indicated its inclination to let him remain.
Meanwhile, former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam remains ensconced in Hill, a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe, where he has lived since fleeing Addis Ababa in 1991. The deaths of as many as 1 million Ethiopians were attributed to his Marxist government.
When Mengistu traveled to Johannesburg late last year for medical treatment, human rights groups urged South Africa to arrest him on war crimes charges, and Ethiopia requested his extradition.
But South Africa moved slowly, and Mengistu returned to Zimbabwe. In response to criticism that it harbored the exile, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe noted that American diplomats had encouraged Zimbabwe to take in Mengistu to avoid further bloodshed in Ethiopia, where rebels had taken over.
Brody said the prospects for justice in Senegal appear encouraging. It was the first country to ratify the 1998 Rome treaty on establishment of an international criminal court. And Senegal also has ratified the 1984 U.N. Convention Against Torture, under which Britain detained Pinochet.