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The Monitor's View

Arab uprising: What to do with dictators?

Immunity or prosecution for the dictators of Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya? Trends favor prosecution, but it must be justly carried out.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / April 21, 2011

Immunity or prosecution for dictators? That tough question hovers over the Arab uprising, just as it has in Latin America, parts of Asia, postcommunist Europe and other places.

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In Yemen, international negotiators have reportedly offered amnesty to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a way to entice him to resign after 32 years in power. Western leaders have hoped, too, that an exit could be found for Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, perhaps by letting him go to Venezuela or places in Africa.

And yet, Egyptian authorities are detaining the deposed Hosni Mubarak for questioning in a military hospital. They want to ask about his role in corruption and the deaths of hundreds of protesters who sought his ouster.

Tunisia’s justice minister, meanwhile, seeks the extradition of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia when youthful demonstrators forced him from his 23-year rule in January. Tunis wants him to answer to more than a dozen charges, including murder and drug trafficking.

The choice between amnesty and accountability is not easy. As a carrot to push out a dictator, amnesty offers a chance to end years of brutality and corruption. Granted to a former dictator, it might allow a country to focus on more pressing needs – such as building a new state.

But following up on prosecution allows the opportunity of justice for victims. If done fairly, it builds a foundation of lawfulness for a future state.

Either choice can perpetuate divisions in society, however. Letting a dictator off the hook lights a fire of resentment under those hurt during a reign of terror. Yet a politicized prosecution, perceived as unjust – such as the trial of Saddam Hussein that ended in execution – can also deepen schisms.


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