By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Senegal on Friday to put on trial or extradite to Belgium Chadian ex-president Hissene Habre, and Senegal said it would put him on trial later this year.
The court, in a ruling that could affect other deposed leaders living in exile, said Senegal had failed to make serious efforts to prosecute Habre, who ruled Chad for eight years from 1982. His government was accused of torturing or killing tens of thousands of opponents.
"Senegal is required to cease this continuing wrongful act in accordance with general international law," said presiding judge Peter Tomka, ruling on a case brought by Belgium, which demanded Habre's extradition under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
In a binding decision, the ICJ ordered Senegal to act under the Convention against Torture, which it has signed. The convention obliges signatories to extradite or refer for prosecution anyone on their territory accused of responsibility for torture.
"Senegal must therefore take, without further delay, the necessary measures to submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution, if it does not extradite Mr. Habre," said Tomka, reading the ruling in The Hague. The ICJ is the United Nations' highest judicial body.
Cheikh Tidiana Thiam, head of judicial affairs at Senegal's foreign ministry, said the country would try Habre this year.
Human rights groups and victims hold Habre, 70, responsible for torture or killing up to 40,000 people during the eight years he led the poor, oil-rich central African country. Ousted in a coup in 1990, he lives in exile in Senegal.
The ICJ ruling has implications for other former leaders because it gives all 150 states that have signed the convention the right, even if they have no direct involvement in the case, to demand prosecution of an alleged torturer living on another signatory state's territory.
"The ICJ declared that the torture convention means exactly what it says - if someone commits torture, he has to be brought to justice," said Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch.
He said the ruling could have implications for deposed leaders living in exile, such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the former Tunisian president now living in exile in Saudi Arabia.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt, Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Tim Pearce)