Senegalese authorities on Sunday detained former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, the first step towards a trial on charges of crimes against humanity that is seen by many as a milestone for African justice.
The man once dubbed “Africa’s Pinochet” also stands accused of war crimes and torture during his eight years in power in Chad, where rights groups say about 40,000 people were killed under his rule.
A prosecutor with a special court set up to try the former leader confirmed his detention.
One of Mr Habre’s lawyers, El Hadji Diouf, told local radio on Sunday he had been arrested at his home in Dakar.
Delayed for years by Senegal, where he has lived since being ousted in 1990, Mr Habre’s trial will set a precedent as until now African leaders accused of atrocities have been tried only in international courts.
Typically dressed in combat fatigues during the years of his rule, Mr Habre was called “desert fighter” after he seized power in 1982 from former rebel ally Goukouni Weddeye during a long conflict with Libya, which fought to annex the north of Chad. His regime was marked by fierce repression of his opponents and the targeting of ethnic groups. In 1990 he fled to Senegal after being ousted by current president Idriss Deby Itno.
A decade later a group of victims filed charges against him in Senegal, but he has never been brought to trial and former president Abdoulaye Wade, who was voted out of office in April 2012, repeatedly tried to “get rid of him”.
On a visit to Senegal on Thursday as part of his three-nation Africa tour, US President Barack Obama hailed Dakar’s efforts to prosecute Mr Habre.
“This is a trial that we have supported and we welcome Senegal’s leadership in undertaking this effort to see that justice is done and we have committed resources in support of their efforts,” said US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Senegal and the African Union signed an agreement in December to set up the court to try Mr Habre for offences allegedly committed between 1982 and 1990. The AU had mandated Senegal to try Mr Habre in July 2006, but the process stalled under Mr Wade.