In a puzzling twist to a 20-year saga, Senegal's government informed Chad's government Friday that former dictator Hissene Habre will next week be extradited on a special flight to face trial in his home country where victims dub him "The Butcher."
Habre sought refuge in Senegal in 1990 after being toppled in a coup, and has lived freely despite an indictment by a Senegalese judge on charges of crimes against humanity. The lack of action on his case has become a symbol of Africa's unwillingness to try its own.
Abderaman Djasnabaille, the Chadian minister of human rights, told The Associated Press by telephone that he was "astonished" by the news. He said that Chad was informed by a letter sent by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade.
"We received a correspondence from Wade saying he plans to send Hissene Habre back to us this Monday, July 11," said Djasnabaille. "We were surprised, to say the least."
For more than 20 years, victims of torture who survived the gulags established by the Chadian ruler have lobbied to bring him to justice, though Friday's turn of events is not exactly what they had in mind.
"This is a certainly a major development," said leading Habre expert Reed Brody, a legal counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch who has worked for over a decade to help bring Habre to court. "But we have always insisted that he be given a fair trial in conditions that respect his rights and his security _ and we are very concerned that those conditions do not exist in Chad today," he said.
Victims who dubbed Habre "the butcher of Chad" described surviving horrific conditions inside the regime's jails. Many died from asphyxiation because they were crammed too tightly to breathe.
Habre was indicted in 2000 by a Senegalese judge, only to then see the case stalled in what rights group say was a general malaise in Africa over holding leaders accountable. Senegal initially claimed its laws needed to be amended in order to allow for such a trial, and the country underwent a lengthy constitutional reform process. Later they said the trial would be too expensive.
Last week, the African Union issued a strongly worded statement, warning Senegal that it needed to try Habre or else extradite him to a nation willing to do so.
However, Chad was not the country that the African Union had in mind. Belgium has requested his extradition and in the AU said that Senegal needed to consider sending Habre to Belgium if they are unable to try him.
Chad is frequently ranked among the world's least democratic and most corrupt countries. And a Chadian court already has sentenced Habre to death in absentia, making it unlikely that he could face the charges against him in a neutral courtroom.
Clement Dokhot, the president of an association representing victims of the regime, said the development is not what they had hoped for. "This is not good news for us, because he was already condemned to death in absentia. Chad risks undermining our quest for justice," he said.
In a communique released Friday, the government of Chad said it will take all the necessary predispositions to receive and try Habre. "This will be done in concert with the African Union and with human rights groups so that he receives an equitable trial," the statement said.
Djasnabaille, the minister of human rights, said that the government has no choice. "The Chadian position has been in line with the African Union position _ that he should be tried," he said.
"It's a surprise that they are sending him here, but since this is a fait accompli, we will do what is needed to organize the trial, and we will do this in a transparent way," he said.
Associated Press Writer Dany Padire contributed to this report from N'Djamena, Chad.