DAKAR/THE HAGUE (Reuters) - With many Africans denouncing the International Criminal Court as 'white man's justice', the trial of Chad's former dictator in Senegal on charges of crimes against humanity offers the continent a chance to show it can hold its leaders to account.
The start of the trial of Hissene Habre on Monday concludes a 15-year battle by victims and rights campaigners to bring the former strongman to justice in Senegal, where he fled after being toppled in a 1990 coup.
Habre, backed by Washington as a bulwark against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s, is blamed by rights groups for widespread torture and the killing of up to 40,000 people during the eight years he ruled his impoverished central African nation.
Though African presidents have been tried in their own countries for crimes committed in office, Habre's trial marks the first time that a court in one country has prosecuted the former ruler of another on rights charges, according to Human Rights Watch.
It comes a month after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's escape from an international arrest warrant in South Africa marked a new low in relations between Africa and theInternational Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The ICC was embraced by many African governments when it was set up in 2002, but attitudes toward the largely European-funded court have cooled after it has indicted only Africans, prompting many to label it a Western-controlled, neo-colonial institution.
"This is a chance to show that an African court can deliver justice for African victims for crimes committed in Africa," said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has pursued the Habre case since 1999.
"It's one thing to complain about having abusive African presidents sent to The Hague. It's another thing to show that they can be prosecuted and get a fair trial here in Africa."
The proceedings, due to last around 3 months, will be heard by a Special African Chamber (CAE) created in 2013 by Senegal and the African Union.
'I MADE A VOW TO GOD'
The case turns on whether Habre, feted at the White House in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan after expelling Libyan forces from Chad, ordered the large-scale assassination and torture of political opponents and ethnic rivals.
A 1992 Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré's government of up to 40,000 political murders and systematic torture, mostly by his feared intelligence police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).
Habre and his lawyers intend to boycott the trial, saying there has been no due process. They say the 72-year-old has a heart condition, though the court could still oblige him to attend.
"In this affair from the outset it has been Hissene Habre is guilty and let's find evidence that justifies this," said his lawyer Ibrahima Diawara. "None of the victims, if we are calling them that, ever saw Hissene Habre. They never met him."
HRW says its investigation in 2001 unearthed thousands of documents in the abandonedDDS headquarters updating Habre on the status of detainees. A court handwriting expert confirmed margin notes on one document to be Habre's.
Whereas the Bashir case was presented to the ICC by the U.N. Security Council, Habre's prosecution is built on campaigning by thousands of victims and Chadian lawyer Jaqueline Moudeina, who faced repeated threats.
Souleymane Guengueng, a former accountant who spent two years in Habre's prisons, secretly compiled evidence of crimes after his fall. The 66-year-old is among some 100 victims due to testify at the trial and wants to look Habre in the eye.
"In prison when I saw my colleagues dying and the enormous suffering they inflicted on us ... I made a vow to God that if he kept me alive, I would not let these things pass in silence," he said.
A successful trial of Habre, conducted to high standards and leading to a credible verdict, would strengthen African countries' case that they are best placed to try their own.
Yet the establishment of the court in Senegal was due partly to prodding from the ICC's European backers. The ICC itself can only try crimes committed after it was established.
After Habre was detained in 2000, Senegal's courts ruled they were not competent to try a case from another country.
Habre wielded considerable influence within then-President Abdoulaye Wade's government. Two of his lawyers were ministers.
Finally, an investigation by a Belgian judge forced the issue back onto the agenda. AnAfrican Union summit in 2007 rejected an extradition request from Belgium and mandatedSenegal to try Habre.
Even after Senegal approved 'universal jurisdiction' enabling it to prosecute rights crimes committed elsewhere, Wade's government dragged its heels until Belgium secured a 2012 ruling from the U.N.'s highest court ordering Senegal to put Habre on trial or extradite him. The new government of President Macky Sall in Senegal made the prosecution a priority.
"The perception of white man's justice must cease," Senegal's Justice Minister Sidiki Kabasaid.
(Additional reporting by Anne Look; Editing by Giles Elgood)