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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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16 Jean Kambanda, Convicted without Trial

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On 6 April 1994 an aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, the chief of staff of the Rwandan army, and other senior Rwandan and Burundi officials, was shot down as it came into land at Kigali airport. All the passengers and three French crew were killed. By common consent, it was this event which triggered what has become known as the Rwandan genocide, a three-month massacre in which hundreds of thousands of people, mainly ethnic Tutsis, were murdered, often with machetes. The fighting ended with the victory of the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which managed to overthrow the Hutu government in July and has remained in power ever since.

The Rwandan genocide has become the defining event in the canon of modern military and judicial interventionism. It inspired – and continues to inspire – huge revulsion, as hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children were hacked to death. A number of Hollywood feature films have been made about it (in contrast to the roughly contemporaneous events in Bosnia, which have generated no equivalent entertainment). The few months between the shooting down of the plane in April and the RPF victory in mid-July 1994 have been elevated to the supreme reference point for the two main claims of the interventionists: first, that the West stood idly by while the killing took place (there were UN soldiers in Rwanda at the time and yet they did not stop the killing) and that, therefore, it should instead...

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