Two important trials concluded this past week, one involving the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s sentencing of former Liberian president Charles Taylor and the other involving Egypt’s transitional government’s prosecution of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Both former tyrants were sentenced to prospective life sentences, with the 64-year-old Taylor receiving 50 years in prison and the 84-year-old Mubarak receiving 25 years behind bars.
But some may ask, what good is all this? Isn’t this too little too late? Are these punishments truly appropriate for all the pain and horror these men caused so many?
Mubarak’s case faced particular domestic scrutiny for a number of perceived failures: the court found him not guilty of any type of corruption charges; it failed to find his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, as well as a number of his political allies guilty of anything; and, as some protesting critics complained, the court did not wield the full power of its retributive justice upon the former tyrant by sentencing him to death.
Many of these criticisms are valid, while others are more justifiable—like the resistance of the courts to hand out a death sentence (as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has demonstrated, even the bitterest of enemies can resist the temptation of brutal, vengeance for a more humane form of political structure.)
But the main question still arises from all this: what makes these trials any more desirable or fair than mob justice? What does the current tyrant, such as Assad in Syria or Al-Khalifa in Bahrain, fear more: the relatively gentle hands of institutional justice that Taylor and Mubarak faced or the vicious talons of the mob that Gaddafi faced for instance? Most surely the latter is a worse fate.
So does this make mob justice “better?” Well, simply put: no. Advocates of this line of thought tend to overlook the essential interplay between the omnipresent threat of mob justice during times of revolution and the constructed processes of institutional justice.
That is, mob justice is not something that need be created. It is something that will naturally arise in times of political turmoil and societal overthrow.
Judicial institutions, however, are constructed. They do not naturally arise.
Therefore tyrants will ALWAYS face the threat of mob justice once overthrown. Once put on the table, the fate of trial by due process is an option that can, and has been, used as a bargaining chip to convince dictators to step down from power with as little bloodshed as possible.
This is not to mention the obvious advantages judicial process and humane institutions have over violent anarchy, of course. But it’s often an overlooked point the role the former can play in downplaying chaos and bloodshed in times of revolution.However, to be fair this does assume that the dictator in question has accepted the futility of holding on to power and rejected illusions of riding out the revolution. For instance, as it stands now in Syria and Iran, the challenged regimes, most accurately, assess that their abilities can most likely fend off any attempts at revolution; that is, in the short term. This of course makes bargaining for political transition against the threat of mob justice less likely. But, again, this is in the short term. More likely than not, these regimes will find that political power cannot stand on the foundations of tyranny forever.