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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Saddam Hussein


John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process.
It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, and Saddam Hussein – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means.
With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions of this subject.


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13 The Greek Colonels, Emperor Bokassa, and the Argentine Generals: Transitional Justice, 1975–2007 175


13 The Greek Colonels, Emperor Bokassa, and the Argentine Generals: Transitional Justice, 1975–2007 As we have seen, there was a glut of trials of former heads of state and government in the aftermath of World War II. Perhaps this was inevitable after such a worldwide conflagration which had ended in such apocalyp- tic events as the Holocaust and the detonation of bombs which reduced entire cities to ruins in an instant. The overriding desire was for a new international system which would ensure world peace once and for all, a desire expressed by the slogan ‘Never again war!’ The Greek colonels Unfortunately, war is part of the human condition and the respite from it and the lull in trials of heads of state lasted but three decades – until the trial of the Greek colonels in 1975. The colonels had seized power on 21 April 1967 and governed the country until their regime collapsed after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Although the Greek colonels argued that they were wielding power legally (having been invested in office by the king) they also initially proclaimed themselves to be a revolutionary regime, and the coup leaders operated nominally under the command of a ‘Revolutionary Council’. Like Lenin, Stylianos Pattakos, one of the three coup leaders (with Giorgios Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos), proclaimed that the task of the revolution was ‘to fashion a new man’, who was supposed to ‘have the strength to do Absolute Good’.1 It was not until 1975,...

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