It took far too long to put Chadian ex-dictator Hissene Habre on trial. Yet because the verdict was handed down by an African court, it sends a robust message across Africa and beyond, writes Dirke Köpp.
Victims of the dictator Hissene Habre, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, had to wait a long time for justice. For more than a quarter of a century, there was no official recognition of the suffering they had endured. To make matters worse, the ex-dictator who had spread so much misery was able to lead a carefree existence in exile in Senegal where he resided in an elegant villa.
Habre was shielded by former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. Wade made no attempt to prosecute Habre, despite a mandate Senegal had received from the African Union in 2006 to open proceedings against him. For many years, it looked as if Hissene Habre was to be yet another case of an African head of state going unpunished for crimes he had committed.
Habre's secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), terrorized his opponents - real or imagined - for eight years. This was a deplorable example of a state abusing its power. Tens of thousands were tortured or maltreated and at least 40,000 people were killed.
Habre was brought to trial by the persistence of victims' groups and a number of NGOs. The judges of the special tribunal, known by its French acronym CAE (Chambres africaines extraordinaires), also deserve words of praise. They ensured that the ex-dictator was given a life sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity, rape, kidnapping and other charges.
This was an African Union special tribunal. As such, it has sent a powerful signal from Africa and for Africa. A precedent has been set. Habre was the first African president to be convicted on the continent and in the name of the continent. The judges have thereby helped to strengthen independent African justice and perhaps even more importantly they have given a boost to civil society in Africa.
It is a pity that it took so long. But the reluctance to prosecute displayed by Wade shows that there is still a long way to go. African presidents are generally unwilling to tear each others eyes out. Even Wade's successor, Macky Sall, speaking in an interview with DW two years ago, was unwilling to call Habre a dictator.
Yet it was Sall who promised to put Habre on trial and he kept that promise. But many African leaders refrain from taking such a step because they fear they, too, could end up in court one day. That is why the CEA verdict is so important. Heads of state - many of whom are ex-rebels - will only change their attitudes once they appreciate that crimes will not go unpunished.
There are also lessons here for the international community. Firstly, the CEA judges have shown that they are just as capable as their counterparts in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Secondly, the verdict should also help the international community realize that it often supports the wrong leaders or heads of state.
Far too many African presidents enjoy prestige abroad while permitting serious rights abuses at home; for example, because they are supporting the struggle against terrorism outside their country's borders. The presence of terror within such borders is apparently only of limited interest to international policy makers.