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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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Conclusion 251


Conclusion When we cast our thoughts back over three hundred years of trials of former heads of state, there is perhaps one conclusion which imposes itself above all others: there has never been a single acquittal. The only former heads of state who have escaped conviction have been Erich Honecker and Slobodan Milošević, the first by being about to die, the second by actually dying during his trial. General Galtieri of Argentina was acquitted by the military court which tried him first, but then immediately convicted by the civilian Supreme Court instead, which in any case had acquired the right of oversight over the whole procedure. The three men acquitted at Nuremberg were not heads of state or government, and they were in any case immediately rearrested and convicted by the German de-Nazification authorities instead (although then amnestied again shortly thereafter). Danton’s grim prediction in 1792 that one cannot save a king who is on trial (printed as an epigraph to this book) has proved absolutely correct. This zero per cent acquittal rate can be explained by the fact that, in most cases, the conviction of the former sovereign is an indispensable source of legitimacy for the new regime, which seeks by organizing the trial not only to destroy its enemy but also, much more importantly, to affirm its status as the new sovereign. This is as true of modern international tri- bunals as it was of the High Court of Justice in 1649. The right to prosecute criminals...

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