When facing charges, both President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accused their judges of being instruments of political retaliation. They are not alone: even O. J. Simpson's defence attorney argued that his trial was politically motivated. Were they right? Politicians, commentators and members of the public will hold contrasting views, and the more a trial involves the higher echelons of society—top politicians, tycoons or celebrities—the more it is likely that public opinion will become a jury outside the courtroom. Indeed, Political trials in theory and history shows that, in too many trials, it is very difficult to separate the administration of justice from explicit or, more often, implicit political goals. The book makes two key contributions to the understanding of political trials. The first comes from a rather dense, though well-articulated, introductory chapter from the editors. The second is a list of inspiring case-studies devoted to 14 trials held across 25 centuries, from Socrates to Guantánamo Bay. Jens Meierhenrich and Devin O. Pendas are well aware that the category of political trial is very heterogeneous and they make an attempt to divide it into three subcategories: those that lead to a real change in society (decisive trials), those that are educational and often help to establish a new cultural climate (didactic trials), and finally those that aim to annihilate political opponents (destructive trials). The subcategories are certainly useful, although they do not appear to be mutually exclusive and a typical political trial may combine elements of each of the three. More importantly, Meierhenrich and Pendas make a bold effort to identify three key components of the political trial: power, procedure and performance. According to the editors, only those holding power can call a suspect to the dock. These are typically states or, as in the case of international tribunals, associations among states. Due to this, they interpret political trials exclusively as acts of power exercised by state authorities. This definition seems to be too restrictive. Naturally, most political trials take place under the jurisdiction of a state, but it is wrong to assume that the judicial dynamics between accusation and defence in front of a supposedly impartial judge are monopolized by states. When Bertrand Russell and his associates accused the United States of committing war crimes in Vietnam, they did it in front of a court of public opinion. They were certainly organizing a political trial, in spite of the fact that no state authority was involved and none of the accused could ever be punished by such a tribunal. Moreover, a trial, especially one where the impartiality of the court is challenged, needs to follow specific procedures. The rules of the game must be respected, but we have seen how many defendants—including members of the National Liberation Front in Algeria; separatist groups, such as the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA); and terrorists organizations, such as the Italian Red Brigades and the German Baader-Meinhof group—found that the best defence strategy was to deny the authority of the courts that tried them. Finally, both the editors in their introduction and the contributors to the volume discuss individual trials, emphasizing the importance of performance. Readers are warned that ‘much of the efficacy and legitimacy of trials depends on their performative quality’ (p. 63). Very often, the real outcome of a political trial is not the ruling of the court, but rather its legacy in public opinion and, more generally, in historical records. Both Socrates and Jesus Christ were found guilty, but their judges are known today only because they condemned them. This questions the very nature of a political trial. The case is often won not by establishing the truth, but by providing a convincing narrative. The competition between the prosecutor and the defendant is eventually won by the player able to provide the best theatrical performance. In conclusion, Political trials in theory and history is well documented and full of intelligent insights, but it does not necessarily help identify in what instances political factors dominate a trial. Moreover, though the contributors to the volume do a very good job of uncovering the political components in the trials they discuss, no solutions are offered. Should aspirations of impartial justice be abandoned or should the foundations of independent judicial institutions be reinforced? © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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