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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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Whenever heads of state go on trial these days – and the phenomenon is becoming increasingly common – you can usually rely on someone to say that the event is unprecedented. In October 2007 a leading human rights organization said that the extradition of the former Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, to his native country from Chile was ‘the first time that a court has ordered the extradition of a former head of state to be tried for gross human rights violations in his home country.’ The same organization had previously said that the conviction for genocide of Jean Kambanda, the former prime minister of Rwanda, in 1998, was ‘historic’; that the trial of Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Yugoslavia, from 2001 to 2006, was ‘ground-breaking’; and that the trial of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, which started in late 2007, was ‘a break with the past’.1

The reason why such trials are greeted as marking new events is that they are indeed part of a new trend towards military and judicial interventionism, and towards rule by supranational political and judicial institutions. In most cases, recent trials of heads of state have been conducted before those international or partly international tribunals which have proliferated since the end of the Cold War: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY, created in 1993); the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR, created in 1994); the Special Court for Sierra Leone (created in 1996, which organized the trial...

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