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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

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, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – 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 on this subject.
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1 The Trial of Charles I and the Last Judgement

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The first trial of a head of state for acts committed in his official capacity while in power was that of King Charles I of England in January 1649. His entry as a prisoner into the Palace of Westminster in front of a specially constituted High Court of Justice on a freezing cold morning was both the culmination of a century of religious and political turmoil in England, and also the beginning of the distinctly modern attitude to kingship, sovereignty, and the state.

Ever since Henry VIII had broken with Rome in 1534, England had been engulfed in political and religious upheaval. But the English Civil War (1642–51) mirrored the similar religious wars which ravaged Central Europe from 1618 to 1648. It is generally believed that, when an end was put to that war by the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, the modern international system was born in which states were considered sovereign, not subject to any superior religious authority. This date, 1648, is generally taken to mark the rise of modern secularism, and the establishment of the key principle of modern politics that there is no religious authority above that of the state. Indeed, the execution of Charles I, and the destruction thereby of belief in the ‘divine right of kings’, itself occurred in that year according to the way the calendar then worked, since the new year did not begin until March.

It seems wrong, however, to say that that the...

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