By Diadie Ba
DAKAR (Reuters) - There is enough evidence to put Chad's deposed strongman Hissene Habre on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, judges in Senegal ruled on Friday, according to a statement from the special tribunal set up to handle his case.
Habre, 72, was detained in Senegal in 2013 after living in exile there since he was overthrown in a coup more than two decades earlier.
Human rights groups hold him responsible for the torture or killing of up to 40,000 people during the eight years he led Chad, an impoverished central African oil producing country.
Senegal, under pressure from the International Court of Justice and campaign groups, set up a special body within the justice system known as the Extraordinary African Chambers to look into the allegations.
A panel of four judges carried out a 19-month pre-trial investigation, mainly in Chad, to interview witnesses and victims, analyze documents from Habre's secret police and visit mass graves.
"This ruling sends Hissene Habre before Extraordinary African Chambers to face trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture crimes," the statement said.
The trial, expected to begin in May or June, will be held before a panel of two Senegalese judges and a non-Senegalese lead judge from another African Union member state.
Habre does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and has so far refused to participate in the proceedings. His lawyers were not immediately reachable for comment.
"After so many years, Habre's victims are now on the verge of seeing justice done for what they have endured," said Jacqueline Moudeina, lead lawyer for the victims in the case.
Clement Abaifouta, an ex-political prisoner under Habre's 1982-1990 rule who now heads an association of his alleged victims, welcomed the judges ruling.
"We are finally going to be able to confront our main tormentor and regain our dignity as human beings," said Abaifouta, who says he was forced to bury hundreds of fellow detainees.
Twenty-one Chadian security agents, including former members of Habre's feared secret police, were charged by the special court with murder and torture in November. They pleaded not guilty.
Chad's President Idriss Deby was a military chief in Habre's administration before overthrowing him in a 1990 coup.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Janet Lawrence)