America's trial, judged by the world

In the proverbial court of world opinion, there are whispers from the gallery.

International reaction to the Senate trial of America's president range from a jaded disinterest to outright admiration for the political machinery clanking along on Capitol Hill.

The trial is now one of the hottest topics of conversation in, for example, China's capital.

Everyone here from taxi drivers to reform-minded officials say the trial is an amazing example of the supremacy of law and the power of the press in the US.

"The [Chinese] state-controlled media have been reporting on Clinton's impeachment in order to show how chaotic a free society like the US can become," says a young Chinese journalist.

"Yet in many ways, that strategy is backfiring," he adds. "To many Chinese, Clinton's trial is a great lesson in democracy."

Chinese from all walks of life have been following the saga for the past year with a mix of curiosity and wonder that the private acts of a top official could be exposed, much less brought before a congressional tribunal.

"I could not imagine anything like President Clinton's affair being written about in the press here if it concerned a top Chinese leader," says a professor at prestigious Beijing University.

While they are in power, "China's leaders live like gods, above the law," says a lawyer in Beijing, who asked that her name not be used. China's imperial rulers for centuries "used the law to discipline their subjects rather than themselves, and the Communist Party has continued the practice," she adds.

China's constitution says the national legislature has the power to remove anyone from the president to the premier from office, but the only attempt to exercise that right ended in failure, say legal scholars here.

In May 1989, after then-Premier Li Peng signed an order calling troops into Beijing to crush student protests at Tiananmen Square, several leading legislators tried to hold an emergency session of congress to revoke martial law and impeach Mr. Li.

The premier was reported to have held the leader of the National People's Congress until the legislator publicly backed the Army's crackdown.

Li now heads the congress and is believed to be a leading force behind maintaining the party leadership's immunity from the law.

Some people in Beijing say that - thanks to satellite television and the Internet - they probably know more about the private details of Mr. Clinton's past than they do of any of China's walled-off leaders.

"In the past, I didn't know whether to believe the US was as free as Americans said it was," says a Beijing taxi driver. "But only a real democracy can put its top leader on trial, and I am beginning to believe that the US really is a great country."

Elsewhere, however, more of the gloss has worn off America's image as the trial has worn on.

London Many Britons appear to believe that pursuit of political advantage by Republicans in Congress is the driving force behind the Clinton trial.

David Pannick, a leading court advocate, says such a process "could not happen in Britain" and "does not conform to the principles of British justice from which the [US] legal system is derived."

Many citizens here make a distinction between Clinton's personal conduct and his ability to operate as president.

In a typical comment, David Armstrong, a London accountant, says: "I don't think much of Clinton's behavior, but I would have felt the same about some kings of England, and quite a few of our successful politicians.

"Anyway, it's obvious that right-wing Republicans are out to get Clinton for their own ideological reasons," he adds.

Britons have seen several of their own politicians ensnared in scandals. This month former Conservative Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken pleaded guilty to charges of lying and obstruction of justice. In December two high-ranking Labour ministers resigned over a dubious housing loan. - Alexander MacLeod

Paris The general reaction of many continental Europeans to the Senate trial is one of bewilderment. "It is simply unbelievable, incomprehensible," exclaims Giselle Gardez, a retired cafe owner in Paris. "America is a great power, and a great power must have more important things to do than this."

Many people on this side of the Atlantic seem fed up with the Monica Lewinsky story after a year of revelations and political maneuvering. And though the press all over Europe is covering the Senate proceedings, nobody believes the president will be removed from office, so there is little sense of drama.

Europeans - whether German, French, or Spanish - tend to focus not on the legal aspects of the trial, but on the political aspects.

"Clinton is an excellent president," says Alain Corbel, a Paris hotel worker. "If everyone was allowed to dig into politicians' private lives just to get rid of their enemies, where would we end up?"

Still, there is a hint of envy in some people's attitudes toward the trial. "In France the whole government administration covers up for the president," says Mr. Corbel. "There are no public bodies who can do anything about it. Americans are making a lot of fuss about nothing, but they have a Constitution, it's a democratic one, and they are applying it." - Peter Ford

Moscow In Russia the notion of unseating Clinton for, as many see it, lying over sex is puzzling if not absurd.

Here, moves are under way by the opposition Communist Party to impeach President Boris Yeltsin over what are considered more serious crimes: treason, murder, and ruining the country.

The issues at stake are the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, waging war in breakaway Chechnya in 1994-96, and sending in tanks to quell a 1993 parliamentary rebellion.

"Most people here think the process against Clinton is too trivial and dirty," says Nikolai Zubov, a political columnist with the Kommersant Daily newspaper in Moscow. "It's too remote for our public to relate to."

Besides the gravity of the Russian charges, there is a difference between the two countries' attitudes toward virility and power, observers say. Many point to what is widely viewed as Clinton's vigor, relative to that of Mr. Yeltsin, who is ailing.

Russia's own impeachment proceedings are unlikely to bear fruit, lawmakers say. The opposition has tried and failed several times to complete the laborious legal procedure, and this time seems likely to be no different.

Even if the process were to succeed, by that time Yeltsin would likely have left power. Elections are planned for 2000. - Judith Matloff

Tokyo In Japan, people seem about as interested in the impeachment trial as they are in, say, filling out tax forms.

"I have no idea what's going on now," says Aki Nakatani, a waitress at a Tokyo cafe. "I mean, I know there's a trial, but I haven't been following it. I'm not interested. I don't know anybody who is."

In the weekly magazines, Clinton's troubles haven't warranted much mention lately. The Olympic corruption scandal and sumo wrestler Wakanohana's love life get much bigger play.

The biggest flurry of interest in Clinton's troubles came with the publication of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report, but it was the salacious content and not the ethical issues that seemed to draw the closest scrutiny.

Still, along the avenues of Kasumigaseki, the gray quarter from which bureaucrats rule the country with what often seems like an arrogant disregard for ordinary people, the accountability of American leaders is impressive.

"It's a great system," says insurance salesman Yoshimitsu Nakamura. "In Japan it would never happen where the leader of the country would be removed," he says.

For most, though, the trial of the American president is an oddity. "The president is popular, right?" asks Futoshi Tomita, a young physical trainer at a gym. "And Americans don't want a trial, but the government has a trial anyway. It's democracy American-style, I guess," he says, laughing. - Nicole Gaouette, Cameron W. Barr

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico A year ago it was possible to find Mexicans (and other Latin Americans) who expressed respect for a system that held its most powerful leaders accountable for wrongdoing. Attitudes have shifted.

"Clinton has been a good president," says Carlos Prez, a general physician in the northern border city of Ciudad Jurez. "But obviously there were enough powerful people who didn't like what he's been doing and who are using this process to try to stop him."

Roxana Manjrez, a business student, says the possibility of removing a president should exist, but for "more serious crimes, like violation of Americans' human rights, seriously threatening the Constitution, [or] perhaps for violating the rights of other countries."

Mexicans are still digesting the Jan. 21 landmark conviction of Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former president Carlos Salinas, for planning the 1994 killing of Institutional Revolutionary Party leader Jos Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Some observers say the case shows the judicial system is no longer at the service of the rich and powerful.

But most Mexicans interviewed said Americans should not experience any similar encouragement just because their president is in the hot seat.

"It's really different," says Luis Ortega, an electrical engineer in Jurez. "There was good cause to convict Salinas of a very serious crime, but in Clinton's case it's all political." - Howard LaFranchi

Cairo In the Middle East, where American foreign policy faces some of its biggest challenges, interest in Clinton's travails is largely overshadowed.

"At the beginning, people were very impressed with the American legal system, but now it's gone too far," says a journalist in Cairo, who asked that her name not be used. "It's just too boring.

"Most people [in the Mideast] are interested in the moral aspects, and politically they link the president's problems with the airstrikes against Iraq." - Scott Peterson

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