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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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13 The Yassıada Trial, the Greek Colonels, Emperor Bokassa, and the Argentine Generals: Transitional Justice, 1960–2007


The World War II therefore saw a glut of trials of former heads of state and government. Perhaps this was inevitable after such a worldwide conflagration which had ended in such apocalyptic events as the attempted destruction of the chosen people 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!’

Unfortunately war is part of the human condition and the respite from it, and the concomitant lull in trials of heads of state, lasted but two decades until the Yassıada trial of the entire Turkish government and all the members of the parliamentary majority in 1960. The Turkish army had overthrown the government in May and, like all regimes which have seized power by force, it needed to demonstrate that its coup had been legal because the previous regime had been acting criminally and violating the constitution.

The Yassıada trial, so called because it was conducted on the Prince’s Island of that name in the Sea of Marmara, a veritable island fortress, is as emblematic a regime trial as one can imagine. There were 592 defendants including the ousted former President of the Republic, Celal Bayar, the former Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, the former President of the Assembly, Refik Koraltan, all the Democratic Party members of the Grand National...

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