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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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1. Human Rights Watch’s various reports on the respective trials. See

2. President George H. W. Bush, ‘Toward a New World Order’, speech to Congress, 11 September 1990.

3. ‘L’ère de « la contrainte des états» s’est ouverte, estime Louise Arbour’, Le Monde, 6 August 1999, 4.

4. Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (London: Penguin, 1999; 2nd edn, 2000), xviii.

5. Robertson, Crimes against Humanity, 338.

6. Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal under Control Council Law no. 10, vol. III, ‘The Justice Case’ (Washington, DC, 1951), 969–70. See ch. 3, ‘Inverting Nuremberg’, in John Laughland, Travesty: the Trial of Slobodan Milošević and the Corruption of International Justice (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

7. On this, see Kjetil Tronvoll et al. (eds), The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional Justice Challenged (Oxford: James Curry Publishers, forthcoming).

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