NEW YORK — The greatest contribution Gen. Augusto Pinochet has made to the rule of international law and to the reign of justice goes beyond his rightful detention in Britain, something never even imagined by Chile’s most powerful dictator. Rather, it is to have made real the validity of extraterritoriality in judging crimes of torture and murder. A case in point — probably the first aside from Pinochet’s case — is now that of the exiled dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, recently indicted in Senegal on charges of torture and “barbarity.” This is the first time that a former head of state has been charged in Africa for human-rights violations by the court of another country.
During Habre’s eight-year rule in Chad, a country in West Africa with a population of 6 million, his secret policy allegedly killed 40,000 people, and tortured 200,000 between 1982 and 1990. In addition, an undetermined number of people disappeared, never to be seen again. The criminal charges against Habre are being filed by seven Chadians, in concert with the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime, which represents 792 people.
In spite of his systematic human-rights abuses, Habre had the support of both France and the United States because he opposed Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader. Habre was deposed by Idriss Deby, Chad’s current president who, although initially the head of a military government, held open elections, which he won in 1996. Habre fled to Senegal, where he has been living since 1990. Deby established a truth commission, which has gathered the main evidence against Habre. Several organizations, among them the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights, led by Human Rights Watch have filed an abuse complaint against Habre.
After collecting its findings, the Chadian truth commission had taken no further action until Pinochet’s arrest in London on Oct. 16, 1998, when the organization’s attorneys sought assistance from Human Rights Watch. That Habre was living in Senegal was critical, since Senegal not only ratified the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture, under which Britain detained Pinochet, but had also incorporated its precepts into the country’s criminal code. That convention establishes extraterritorial jurisdiction in the prosecution of cases of torture regardless of the hierarchy of those responsible.
The case against Pinochet, and the one against Habre, open the possibility that other dictators accused of torture and other human-rights abuses could be brought to trial outside their countries. Among those are Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian dictator now living in Zimbabwe, accused of causing the deaths of 1 million people. Another is Idi Amin, self-proclaimed emperor of Uganda, reportedly responsible for 300,000 political killings, who is now living in Saudi Arabia.
By indicting Habre, Senegal is following in the steps of England, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and France in the case of Pinochet, thus becoming the first African country to apply the rules of international justice. As Alioune Tine, of the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights stated in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, “My country is setting an example for Africa by showing that Africans can take care of their own problems. The time when brutal despots could just take their bank accounts and move next door is coming to an end.”
The circle is now closing for dictators all over the world. And Pinochet, one of the most infamous among them, could be in part responsible for that. By being the first case of a former head of state detained in another country, thus proving the validity of the concept of extraterritoriality in cases of torture and murder, Pinochet may have made a great contribution to justice and to the rule of law.