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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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14 Revolution Returns: the Trial of Nicolae Ceauşescu


The trial and execution of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, and his wife, Elena, on 25 December 1989 compressed into a short space of time many of the events which have typified trials of heads of state throughout history: violent revolution; a cathartic trial to judge and anathematize the deposed head of state; and a swift and brutal death. The fact that it was all broadcast live on television – when the entire Western world was sitting at home enjoying Christmas – ensured that the events received maximum publicity. They provided a real-time insight into the sorts of passions which have driven political trials in the more distant past.

Yet the Ceauşescu trial also fired the starting gun for a regrettable trend. The principal charge brought against him by the kangaroo court hastily convened to execute him was for genocide. This same charge of genocide was to be decisive in the trials of the former Bolivian president García Meza Tejada (who, accused of it in January 1989, was convicted in 1993 of genocide for the massacre of eight people); General Pinochet of Chile (originally arrested in 1998 for genocide of under a hundred people); Colonel Mengistu of Ethiopia (who was convicted in absentia for genocide in 2006, just as political opponents of the new Ethiopian regime, including human rights activists, also found themselves prosecuted for genocide); Jean Kambanda of Rwanda (convicted of genocide without trial in 1998); and Slobodan Milošević (accused in 2001 of...

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