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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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12 Politics as Conspiracy: the Tokyo Trials


Tokyo is the forgotten Nuremberg. Whereas today everyone remembers Nuremberg, the sister trial in Tokyo has largely vanished from historical memory and is seldom cited as a judicial precedent. This is in spite of the fact that the president of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) for the Far East proclaimed during the trial itself that there had been no more important trial in history.1 (Many other trials have been called ‘the trial of the century’ before being similarly forgotten.) The judgement of the tribunal was not published in full until 1977,2 and the complete proceedings of the trial not until 1998.3 This amnesia no doubt reflects the fact that, whereas American fury in 1945 was perhaps even greater at Japanese war crimes than at German ones, a few decades later the principal historical memory of World War II was that of the Holocaust perpetrated in Europe.

By the time the IMT convened in Tokyo on 3 May 1946, the Nuremberg trials had been under way for six months; they were to finish in September 1946. While war crimes trials of European leaders had been going on across the continent, the Tokyo trials did not finish until 1948. They therefore brought to a conclusion the series of postwar trials of heads of state and government.

Inspired by the practice in other states, the choice of the defendants at Tokyo was based on the desire to prosecute a representative cross-section of the wartime regime of...

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