As news spread that former President Donald Trump had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, making him the first former U.S. President to be charged with a crime, his spokesperson, Liz Harrington likened the situation to a “banana republic.” His son, Donald Trump Jr., declared the case “Communist-level sh*t. This is stuff that would make Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot blush.” The former President is expected to be arraigned on Tuesday.
But a government that is accountable to the rule of law, and not subject to the whims of a king or a dictator, is considered one of the key tenets of democracy—and, many experts say, it is essential for leaders to be held accountable like anyone else. In fact, many countries that are considered free and highly functional democracies have prosecuted their leaders.
“Indicting Trump thus is essential to send a message to all: No one, not even a former president, is above the law,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of University of California Berkeley School of Law, in an interview with Berkeley News.
Take, for instance, France. Ex-president Nicholas Sarkozy was convicted in 2014 of having tried to bribe a judge by suggesting he’d trade a job for information about a case. In 2021, he was sentenced to three years in jail (two of them are suspended), although he’s appealing the case. Before him, former President Jacques Chirac was found guilty of corruption, and in 2011 was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence.
And in some cases, the democratic process isn’t even interrupted. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister again despite an ongoing felony corruption case, in which he faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Notably, not all cases have led to convictions. In Italy, for instance, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted in a series of trials for various charges, including for having paid for sex with an underage girl and paying witnesses.
The list goes on: in Taiwan, Germany, Portugal, and across the globe, former leaders have faced indictments, often for corruption-related charges. As Robert Maguire Research Director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics wrote in a recent editorial for TIME some of the countries that have prosecuted their leaders actually have democracies that rate higher on a scale of political rights and civil freedoms than the United States. “Democracies young and old have held past presidents and prime ministers accountable—and come out as strong (or stronger) on the other side,” he said.
Some experts have also pointed out that history has shown the alternative—avoiding the prosecution of a leader who has committed a crime—is not the better option for democracies. As Matthew Dallek, a professor at George Washington University’s College of Professional Studies, said in a recent Washington Post editorial, corruption in Mexico flourished after Mexico failed to prosecute officials for corruption during the 20th century.
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