DAKAR, Senegal -- The former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, who is accused of the killing and torture of thousands of opponents, was arrested here on Sunday by the Senegalese police, said the organization Human Rights Watch.
Victims of Mr. Habré's brutal eight-year reign in the 1980s have been fighting for more than two decades to bring him to justice, and Sunday's arrest was hailed as a decisive step by human rights advocates.
Mr. Habré fled into exile here after being overthrown in a coup in 1990 by Chad's current strongman, Idriss Déby. Ever since, Senegalese governments have stalled and stymied the efforts of his victims to have him prosecuted. Finally, after the election of a new president in Senegal last year, a special court was established to try Mr. Habré in Dakar, the capital.
For years he had been living a largely untroubled life in a Dakar neighborhood, well liked for his benevolence -- according to local news accounts -- by residents oblivious to the amply documented cruelties of his government. More than 40,000 political killings were attributed to the Habré government by a Chadian truth commission established not long after he was ousted. Torture was systematic; thousands died from inhumane conditions in his jails.
Mr. Habré was supported by the governments of the United States and France, as a counterweight to the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in neighboring Libya, according to Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York.
Numerous brutal leaders have taken power and mass killings have unfolded on the African continent since Mr. Habré's ouster. But his case has proved unusual for the tenacity of his victims, and of Human Rights Watch, in seeking to bring him to justice.
The deliberate foot-dragging of Senegal's government, under its former president, Abdoulaye Wade, who was defeated by Macky Sall last year, also came to be seen over the years as indicative of the refusal of African leaders to judge their own. Mr. Wade repeatedly expressed his resentment toward European courts passing judgments on African leaders accused of crimes. Mr. Habré was indicted by a Belgian judge in 2005, after Senegalese courts refused to do so.
Senegal then refused to send Mr. Habré to Belgium. Finally, in July 2012, after the election of the new president here, the International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, ordered Senegal to either try him or extradite him.
"The wheels of justice are turning," said Reed Brody, a Human Rights Watch lawyer who has fought for nearly 15 years to have Mr. Habré prosecuted, in a statement. "After 22 years, Habre's victims can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.