US is not a ‘banana republic’ to investigate Trump – just look at the data


It’s true that few American presidents have ended up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system – only one has ever been arrested (read to the end of this article to find out who). But many other countries have arrested, charged or imprisoned their current or former leaders, and that is no mark against their health as a democracy. Quite the contrary.

Evidence shows that free countries — those with a strong track record of protecting political rights and civil liberties — are just as likely to hold their current and former leaders accountable as unfree countries. In fact, such moves are slightly more likely to make countries more free than less free, as well as allowing free countries to keep their republic intact.

That’s the clear conclusion from a review of 243 cases from 1972 to 2021, where current or former chief executives have been arrested, charged or jailed. These include presidents, prime ministers and prime ministers, as well as emperors and monarchs. My students and I looked at a Freedom House dataset to see if the country was considered free, partially free, or not free at the time of arrest, charge, and imprisonment. We then looked at whether the country’s liberty level designation changed within five years of arrest (except for cases that occurred after 2020).

Of the 243 cases since 1972, 74 involved a free state seeking to hold a current or former leader accountable through the justice system. In another 76 situations, an “unfree” state arrested, charged, or imprisoned a former leader or current occupier. In the remaining 93 cases, it was a partly free country whose government prosecuted an existing or former leader on a legal charge. As this breakdown clearly shows, lawsuits have taken place in all areas.

Finally, our data also underscores that holding leaders accountable does not send a country into a downward spiral. Within five years of a lawsuit against a current or former leader, the country has retained the same freedom designation in most cases (185 times). In 31 additional examples, the country has actually become freer. In the remaining 27 scenarios, the country became less free, with 13 cases resulting in a country temporarily losing its free designation. More than 80% of free countries have maintained their threshold even after judicially detaining a current or former leader.

For perhaps the best comparison with the United States, one can look more deeply at the more developed countries, those that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. This offers 27 cases to consider – and of these, only two OECD countries have become less democratic within five years of the arrest of a current or former head of state: Mexico and Turkey.

Here are some of the main examples in which OECD countries have taken legal action against their current or former leaders:

Colombia: Ex-president Álvaro Uribe was ordered by Colombia’s Supreme Court to be placed under house arrest in August 2020 on charges of witness tampering after accusing a left-wing lawmaker of making false accusations against him in 2012. Uribe was allowed to be released two months later as an investigation continued.

France: France has had two notable cases in recent years. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was charged with corruption by French prosecutors in two cases after leaving office and was eventually convicted in 2021; he spent a year in prison and another year under house arrest. Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was accused of embezzlement in 2017; he was later convicted of fraud and embezzlement and was sentenced to five years in prison, although after appeals he ultimately only served one year in prison.

Iceland: Geir Haarde, Prime Minister of Iceland from 2006 to 2009, has been indicted for his handling of the financial crisis and the collapse of Icelandic banks. He was eventually found guilty of failing to hold Cabinet meetings during the crisis, but was not sentenced to prison.

Israel: In 2016, Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former prime minister, was sentenced to eight months in prison for accepting bribes and obstructing justice, although Olmert’s bribery conviction was partially waived. cancelled. More recently, Benjamin Netanyahu was charged with corruption although a trial has not been completed.

Italy: Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy, was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion in 2013. Due to his advanced age, Berlusconi was exempted from direct imprisonment and instead served his sentence by performing works of general interest. But now he’s trying to make a political comeback, with a run for senator.

Japan: Kakuei Tanaka, a former Prime Minister of Japan, was arrested in 1976 for accepting approximately $2 million in bribes from Lockheed Corp. He was convicted of the charges in 1983 and sentenced to four years in prison, but was allowed to remain free and the charges were eventually cleared on appeal. He remained one of the most powerful forces in Japanese politics even after the allegations.

Mexico: Luis Echeverría, former president of Mexico, served time under house arrest from 2006 to 2009 for his role in the alleged massacre of student protesters in 1968. In the end, the genocide charges were ultimately dismissed.

Portugal: José Sócrates, the former Prime Minister of Portugal, went to prison and then spent months under house arrest from 2014 to 2015 for corruption. He is now awaiting trial for money laundering and falsification of documents.

Other OECD countries whose former leaders have faced legal action include Turkey, South Korea, Poland, Greece and Slovenia.

As for the answer to the above question, the only US President to be arrested was Ulysses S. Grant. In December 1872, Grant was caught speeding with his horse and cart through the nation’s capital. He posted $20 bail but did not show up in court.

Karson Troth, Cooper Dolhancyk, Nicole Morales, Tamino Schoeffer, Emaleigh Turner and Katie Gonzalez contributed to this report.


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