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.

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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.

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.

So far, neither Mr. Saleh nor Mr. Qaddafi are budging. They may fondly wish for the days when Uganda’s Idi Amin lived a life of exile undisturbed in Saudi Arabia, or when East Europe was kind to many of its ex-communist dictators (not to Romania’s ruling Ceausescu couple, who were executed). But these two Arab holdouts are probably much more aware that in recent years, the trend with former dictators has favored prosecution.

Since 1990, according to the 2009 book “Prosecuting Heads of State,” 67 former heads of state or government have been prosecuted for serious human rights or financial crimes. It’s a meteoric rise, the book claims, pointing to such high-profile cases as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

The trend toward prosecution is a healthy one. It marches in the direction of international law, which requires governments to investigate human rights violations and compensate victims.

Several strongmen who have sought refuge in immunity or exile have not been able to outrun justice. In Argentina, for example, former military dictators from the “dirty war” of 1973-86 were brought to trial this year for a plot to steal babies from political prisoners.

Prosecution of former dictators, however, must not mimic the very injustices of their regimes. Any trial of Mr. Mubarak, for instance, should wait until after Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections later this year when the nondemocratic transitional rule by the military will be over.

Time is not necessarily what the masses want when it comes to justice and retribution. But even those who trample on justice still deserve it.

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