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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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11 From Mass Execution to Amnesty and Pardon: Postwar Trials in Bulgaria, Finland, and Greece



The judicial bloodletting in postwar Europe was severest in Bulgaria. Some 3,000 people were executed as war criminals, and virtually the entire wartime political class was wiped out. The incoming Communists, helped to power by the Allied Control Commission under the chairmanship of a Soviet general (as in Hungary, Romania, and Finland), regarded all their political enemies as ‘fascists’. Even Tito had the honour of this epithet from 1948 onwards. A judicial process was set up to purge the entire country of such ‘fascists’ which naturally included the wartime regime, and as in Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere, these trials were merely part of a wider civil war pitting Communists, backed by the Red Army, against the wartime elites and their supporters.

The victims of the purges included three heads of state (the three members of the country’s Regency Council: Prince Kyril of Preslav, Bogdan Filov, and Nikola Mikhov, who reigned in the boy king Simeon’s place on the death of Tsar Boris III on 28 August 1943) and three additional wartime prime ministers (Bogdan Filov having also been prime minister from 1940 to 1943): Petur Gabrovski (who had been prime minister for a week in September 1943), Dobri Bozhilov (prime minister from 14 September 1943 until 1 June 1944), and Ivan Bagrianov (1 June to 2 September 1944). They were accused of their role in bringing Bulgaria into alliance with Germany from 1941 to 1944 and of facilitating the plundering of the...

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