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OP-ED: Between impunity and immunity

  • Published at 02:03 am January 28th, 2021

A brief history of unscrupulous leaders who have escaped punishment

America’s Republicans are in quite a bit of a dilemma. Despite Mitch McConnell’s condemnation of Donald Trump’s incitement of a mob, encouraging it to march on the Capitol earlier this month and creating mayhem, not very many of his fellow senators appear ready to vote for the former president to be convicted in the Senate. And, of course, conviction would mean a loss of a whole tranche of benefits for Trump, especially his inability, legally, to seek any elective office in future.

And that is where we have this dilemma of impunity coming squarely up against the idea of immunity. If Trump is not convicted, it will be a blot on American politics and could well be a precedent for future politicians to be dismissive of constitutional norms. 

If he is convicted and nothing of immunity remains associated with his behaviour, it will be a lesson which in effect will be a revival of the political values that have through the generations shaped the American political landscape. Impunity in modern history, as enjoyed by some of the most disgraceful men ever to hold or exercise power, has been a stain on morality in countries away from the US. In the 1970s, the Pakistani authorities condemned General Yahya Khan’s seizure of power from Ayub Khan in 1969 -- and this was after Pakistan’s military defeat in Bangladesh -- effectively branding him as a usurper. 

That was all so very fine, but the fact that General Iskander Mirza and General Ayub Khan violated the 1956 constitution by imposing martial law in Pakistan in 1958 has never been officially condemned or censured. 

When General Zia-ul-Haq ousted the Bhutto government in July 1977, the deposed prime minister reminded him that under Pakistan’s 1973 constitution, a coup d’etat against an elected government was a treasonous act punishable with death. Zia got the message. He made sure that Bhutto, not he, would go to the grave. Zia has never been condemned by Pakistan’s parliament.

All around the world, inordinately ambitious men have seized power, have ruled with impunity, and once they have fallen from the pedestal, have remained immune to prosecution. In Bangladesh, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad turfed out the elected government of President Abdus Sattar in March 1982 but never paid the price for his act. Indeed, in the years after losing power, barring five years in prison, he came in handy to both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as they jockeyed for his support at different stages of post-1990 politics in the country. 

Ershad thus ruled with impunity and went to his grave immune from prosecution. Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed, guilty of orchestrating the biggest disaster in independent Bangladesh’s history through presiding over the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family and also the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government, was never prosecuted, either in life or posthumously in death. The stains caused in August-November 1975 are yet to be wiped clean, fully. 

That takes us back to America, where Richard Nixon’s impunity in the Watergate scandal was duly punished through reminding him that the president was not above the law. He took the grave message from leading Republicans of the day seriously. When they informed him bluntly that the senate would vote to convict him, he resigned. His successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, telling Americans that the country’s long nightmare was over. 

Republicans in those days were principled politicians bold enough to tell a president from their own party that he had to go. Republicans today have dwindled into a cult, in thrall to the most unqualified man to have been in the White House. In the 1950s, the communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy was eventually brought down and duly censured. His impunity was punished. He died in disgrace.

Around the globe there are the horrific tales of unscrupulous, dangerous men who have escaped punishment under the law for their crimes. General Suharto, responsible for the deaths of as many as two million Indonesians in the aftermath of the events of September 1965, has never been condemned or censured by his successors. His role in the murder of DN Aidit, the respected leader of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia) has never been investigated. Neither has there been any inquiry into the long 29-year incarceration of Dr Subandrio, foreign minister before the Suharto takeover. Impunity in the exercise of power and immunity from prosecution have not helped politics in Jakarta, in much the same way they have prevented a questioning of the misdeeds of the Pinochet regime in Chile. To date, there has been no censure of General Pinochet for his violation of the constitution and violent seizure of the state in September 1973; no inquiry has been initiated into the circumstances of the death of President Salvador Allende and the death of the intellectual-cum-diplomat Pablo Neruda.

In Pakistan, Nawab Akbar Bugti perished when the mountain cave he was in was razed by army bombardment. At Bugti’s funeral, his family was not permitted to be present. It was an outrage committed by the regime of General Pervez Musharraf. And yet the murder of this prominent Baloch leader has not been brought to court and Musharraf has not been prosecuted. 

There have been quite a few post-Musharraf governments in Islamabad, but all of them have had their lips sealed on the Bugti murder. And Musharraf stays in safety and immunity, after all that impunity, abroad. In more recent times, Mohammad bin Salman continues to reign in Saudi Arabia with impunity. There is little reason to think that he will ever be prosecuted for the dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

A deferment of justice, a willingness to look away from the dark deeds of villainous men in the partisan interest, defeats the purpose of politics. No one punished Francisco Franco for the atrocities his followers committed during the Spanish Civil War. No Taliban leaders have been brought to trial over their misrule in Afghanistan. George W Bush and Tony Blair have never been called to account for the lie they propagated about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction before destroying Iraq. The two men acted with impunity and these days move around in immunity no one questions in court.

If America’s Republicans let Donald Trump go free, if they do not shake themselves out of their fears of the most reviled president in their nation’s history, they will only be sending a wrong message to their people. A failure to condemn Trump to perdition will likely fuel the ambitions of other unscrupulous men. Think of Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and Kevin McCarthy.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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