HISSENE HABRE sat shrouded in sunglasses, a turban and a big white boubou on May 30th, as a court in Senegal found him guilty of crimes against humanity, rape and torture. Victims cheered after judges sentenced Chad’s ex-dictator (pictured) to life imprisonment. He raised his fists and shouted: “Down with France-Afrique!”—hinting absurdly that his conviction was a French colonial plot.
Perhaps 40,000 people died in Chad during Mr Habré’s reign of terror between 1982 and 1990. Armed by America (and supported with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid because of his opposition to Muammar Qadaffi’s regime in Libya), his political police crushed any tribe they deemed a threat to his rule. Simply belonging to one was enough to have you locked away in one of his prisons, the most sinister of which was a swimming pool covered in concrete. Torture was routine: a favourite technique was to tie all four limbs behind the back to induce paralysis; another was to force a victim’s mouth around the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle.
This is a landmark for African justice, and a coup for the victims who have pursued it with help from Human Rights Watch, a watchdog. Mr Habré grabbed $11m from public coffers in the last days of his regime and has lived in cosy exile in Senegal for most of the 26 years since.
The court that finally tried him, known as the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), is the first in Africa to sentence an African leader following due process. And it is the first anywhere in which a national court has used the principle of universal jurisdiction (meaning it can hear a case regardless of where the crimes took place) to convict an ex-head of state for human-rights abuses.
Lawyers hope it will not be the last. Usually war crimes are investigated by international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), rather than national courts. In 2012, a special tribunal in The Hague sentenced Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia, to 50 years in jail for supporting hand-chopping rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone. But the ICC is unpopular with African governments, which (wrongly) accuse it of racism. It also costs a fortune (the annual budget is more than $100m) and has a dismal record for convictions (two so far). If more African courts could try human-rights abusers, either in their home countries or in those where they have taken refuge, then perhaps fewer tyrants would escape justice.
There is reason to hope this may be happening. Laurent Gbagbo, the ex-president of Côte d’Ivoire, is currently on trial in The Hague for abuses committed after he refused to relinquish power in 2010. His wife Simone faces judges at home, where she is accused of organising abuses against the opposition. Hers is the first human-rights trial to take place in the country.
Yet not all courts are created equal. Mrs Gbagbo’s case is already riddled with allegations of irregularities and incomplete investigations. Côte d’Ivoire has ignored the ICC’s request that she be extradited to Europe. In other respects, the continent’s appetite for accountability is rather light. The African Union, for instance, wants its own court for human-rights abuses but thinks it ought to offer immunity to heads of state. Mr Habré would no doubt agree.