Justice for dictators may backfire in more violence

As Egypt's Mubarak, Tunisia's Ben Ali face charges, experts warn that other Middle Eastern despots will hold tight.

Mubarak 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah )
Mubarak 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah )
Egyptians and Tunisians alike hailed the decision of their new governments on Wednesday to file criminal charges against their former presidents, Husni Mubarak and Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. But the pursuit of justice may well make it tougher for the opposition elsewhere in the Middle East to push unwanted leaders out of office.
Mubarak and his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were detained on Wednesday for 15 days pending questioning on charges of corruption and the murder of protesters during the popular uprising that led to the president’s ouster two months ago. The same day Tunisian authorities presented 18 legal cases against Ben Ali, including "voluntary manslaughter" and "drug trafficking," the state news agency TAP reported.
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Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi faces legal action even as he battles rebels for control of the country after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced March 3 it had started a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity. Several of his sons and members of his inner circle are being probed as well.
The indictments raise the question whether it is better to bring former despots through the courts to trial or to forgive and forget. The first increases the incentive for those still clinging to power to hold on, at cost of prolonged conflicts. The second potentially saves lives, but sets aside justice and the sense of closure for people who suffered under the old regime.
"I am all for justice being done," Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a recent commentary, "but I think the prime imperative in this case is to oust a brutal dictator; he will be held to account in any case by his Maker." Boot suggested a system whereby the United Nations Security Council grants immunity to dictators as part of a deal to leave power.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
In Libya, fighting between the strongman’s loyalists and opposition forces has gone on since mid-February, with no end in sight. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country’s troops are also at risk in their role as part of the no-fly zone imposed over Libya, is among those who have suggested immunity for Gaddafi.
Of the two leaders facing charges, Mubarak is in the more dangerous position. After he was forced out of office February 11, he took up residence at his vacation home in the Sinai resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, keeping him within reach of Egyptian law. The Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm reported on Thursday that the 83-year-old Mubarak, who was recovering from a heart attack in a Sharm e-Sheikh hospital, was "emotionally devastated" and not eating following the arrest warrant.   
Tunisia faces serious obstacles to bringing Ben Ali to court. After 23 years in power, he fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14. Tunisian Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, who announced the indictments, said Tunisian Authorities were exploring the legal options of extraditing Ben Ali from Saudi Arabia.
But Masoud Ramadani, a member of the Tunisian Human Rights Union, said the idea of Ben Ali facing justice was adequate. "All Tunisians are very happy today," he told The Media Line. "Most would prefer if Ben Ali stood trial in Tunisia. But even if he is tried in absentia, that would be good too."
Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East researcher at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, acknowledged that rulers may hold on to power at all costs for fear of being indicted. "The International Criminal Court was criticized for pursuing the indictment of Muammar Gaddafi," she said.
But, she stressed, those pushing for Mubarak's indictment believe there are pragmatic reasons to press charges against him. "It's not justice versus pragmatism," Kinninmont told The Media Line. "Supporters of Mubarak's indictment say that it sends a strong message to current leaders that they will be held accountable if they act improperly."
For leaders looking for an exit that doesn’t segue into a prison cell, the alternatives are asylum or the formation of a truth-and-reconciliation commission, of the kind that was set up in South Africa in the post-Apartheid years, that will conducts an investigation without an indictment.
Among Middle East leaders fighting for their thrones, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has offered to step down before the end of 2011, but opposition leaders in the country rejected the Saudi mediation efforts and proposed a two-week deadline for his resignation starting April 13.
It was unclear what Saleh has been offered in return for stepping down, but the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that Saudi Arabia had offered him asylum as well.
Gaddafi has reportedly been offered asylum by Uganda. But officials in the country denied the report.
Christopher Stephen, author of Judgment Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, which recounts the trial of the former Serbian leader,  said in an opinion piece in The Financial Times this week that the world shouldn’t trade justice for peace but pursue the justice route.
“The crimes are fresh – in the case of Libya, they are still taking place. Investigators have uncontaminated crime scenes, access to witnesses and evidence” Stephen wrote. “Events in Libya have shown that the West cannot be the world’s policeman. It cannot stop every abuse and outrage. But it can, through the ICC, call those committing abuses to account. In so doing, it can encourage other tyrants across the world to think twice before committing abuses of their own.”