By Diadie Ba
DAKAR (Reuters) - A judge in Senegal formally charged Chad's former president Hissene Habre with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture on Tuesday and remanded him in custody pending trial, his lawyer said.
Habre, 71, was arrested on Sunday in the Senegalese capital Dakar, where he has been living in exile for 22 years since he was overthrown in a 1990 coup in Chad.
Human rights groups hold Habre responsible for the torture or killing up to 40,000 people during his 1982-1990 presidency of the poor, oil-rich central African state.
"He has been formally charged," Habre's lawyer, Francois Serres, told Reuters after the hearing. "We did not have access to the charges. We were not allowed to speak. This is a very peculiar kind of justice."
Senegal first detained Habre more than a decade ago but the previous government of President Abdoulaye Wade dragged its heels over a prosecution, despite international pressure.
It argued firstly that it did not have jurisdiction and then, once laws were changed, that it did not have the money.
The process was kick-started by the election of President Macky Sall in April last year. Under pressure from the International Court of Justice and human rights groups, his government set up a special court in February to look into the long-standing allegations of abuses under Habre's regime.
"This is a stunning victory for Habre's victims who never gave up hope that they would see justice one day," said Reed Brody, legal advisor to Human Rights Watch who has worked with Habre's victims since 1999.
He voiced hope that a fair trial for Habre would set a global precedent. It would be the first time a court in one country has tried the head of state of another for rights crimes.
"Today's arrest is a wake-up call for dictators around the world who think about embarking on mass murder, that they will never be out of the reach of their victims," Brody said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said Habre would be held in a special ward of Dakar's main hospital for prisoners suffering from health problems, pending his trial.
The inquiry, which will draw on extensive evidence collected by international human rights organizations and prosecutors in Belgium, is expected to last around a year, lawyers said.
A trial, presided over by an African Union-appointed judge, could take a further seven months, they said.
Former African heads of state have stood trial before, but only in their own countries or before international tribunals, never in the court of another country.
Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the self-proclaimed Emperor of Central African Republic, was convicted of treason and murder after his 13-rule ended in a coup in 1979. Bokassa, who was cleared of charges of cannibalism, was jailed for life but served only six years.
The court's prosecutor, Mbacke Fall, said on Monday it would pursue Habre on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of torture. The alleged crimes took place during Habre's rule, especially during an on-off conflict with neighboring Libya between 1978 and 1987.
(Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Lewis)