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Timeline: Famous Trials of World Leaders

Author: Dina Guirguis
October 18, 2005

Introduction

Since 1945, a slew of prominent world figures have been brought before various domestic and international courts and tribunals. Some have been convicted, while others, like Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia, are still on trial. Then there are those, such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile or Charles Taylor of Liberia, who have somehow managed to elude prosecution for years.

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The trial of Saddam Hussein, set to begin October 19, is the latest in a long line of war-crimes tribunals. The fate of the former Iraqi dictator is still unknown, but spectators will be watching closely as prosecutors, all of them Iraqi nationals, outline Hussein’s role in the crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred during his rule.

Nuremberg Trials

(1945-49) The Nuremberg Trials, the largest in history, lasted four years and attempted to bring surviving leaders of the Nazi regime and engineers of the Holocaust to justice. The trials began with the “Major War Figures Case,” which came before the International Military Tribunal established by the Allied forces; eleven of the twenty-one defendants were sentenced to death. In the twelve other cases that followed, sixty-five defendants were convicted and more than twenty were executed.

Tokyo War Crimes Trials

(1946-48) Under the watch of U.S. Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East prosecuted twenty-eight high-ranking Japanese leaders for war crimes committed during World War II. The most famous was the arrest, conviction, and execution of the former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. All of the defendants were found guilty; seven were sentenced to death, sixteen to life terms, two to lesser terms, two died during the trials, and one was found insane.

Secret Military Tribunal of Nicolae Ceausescu

(1989) After almost twenty-five years of communist reign in Romania, President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were found guilty of crimes against humanity by a secret military tribunal. The two were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989. News of the couples’ death stunned the country but also led to a public celebration on the streets. The trial lasted only a couple of days and international reaction—especially from the White House—was that it was unfortunate the trial had not been held in public.

UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

(1993-present) A UN Security Council resolution established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to try those responsible for war crimes in the Balkans beginning in 1991. The most famous defendant is former President of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, whose trial began in 2002 and is still underway. So far the tribunal has indicted 162 people, the majority of them ethnic Serbs; fifty-nine suspects are in custody awaiting trial, and ten remain at large. The two Bosnian Serbs most responsible for the Srebrenica genocide—considered the worst human rights atrocity committed on European soil since World War II—are still at large.

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

(1994-present) Since 1997, twenty-two out of eighty-three people have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including former prime minister of Rwanda, Jean Kambanda. Kambanda pled guilty to six counts—including genocide—and was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred and more than two million fled the country. This past August, the tribunal announced seven new indictments, and it is currently prosecuting seven different cases.

Trial of Adolfo Scilingo

(1995-2005) Almost ten years after his alleged crimes, Argentine Navy Captain Adolfo Scilingo was brought before a Spanish court for accusations he was responsible for thirty murders, 225 acts of terrorism, and 286 acts of torture during Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Scilingo was convicted in April 2005 for crimes against humanity, including the charge that he was on board a military plane when as many as twenty people were dumped alive into the sea.

Legal Battle of Augusto Pinochet

(1998) Pinochet was arrested at a London Hospital in October 1998, but after a year-long legal battle, officials ruled he should not be extradited to Spain to face trial for allegations of torture committed while president of Chile from 1973-90. In March 2000, he returned to Chile, where he is scheduled to be questioned by a Chilean judge about his role in the murders of 119 dissidents. Due to Pinochet's health problems, he has yet to be questioned or tried by a court of law.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

(2002) The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to try those most responsible for crimes against humanity in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 1996. Currently, eleven people stand indicted for war crimes, including murder, rape, enslavement, extermination, and attacks against UN peacekeepers. The most famous defendant still at large is Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor, who was offered asylum by Nigeria in 2003.

Iraqi Special Tribunal

(2003-present) The Iraqi Special Tribunal was established by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in December 2003 to try former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for human-rights atrocities committed during his rule. Hussein stands accused of ordering the 1982 execution of about 150 Shiite Iraqis in the northern town of Dujail, slaughtering some 5,000 Kurds with chemical gas in Halabja in 1988, and invading Kuwait in 1990.

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