TURES COLUMN: Does arresting a former leader destroy a republic?

Published 10:30 am Friday, March 24, 2023

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By John Tures and Jenna Pittman
Pittman is an undergraduate researcher at LaGrange College

This week, America has been anxious after former President Donald Trump announced he was about to be arrested, or indicted. What kind of effect might some unprecedented action have upon the United States? Will the USA lose its freedoms in such a case, the result of an imperious government crackdown on anyone associated with Trump, or will such rights be lost in a coup by zealous Trump supporters hopped up on conspiracy theories about “the deep state?”

My students (Myles O. Allen, Peyton D. Beasley, Anna L. Countess, Cooper M. Dolhancyk, Parker J. Floyd, Katie M. Gonzalez, Leah B. Hornsby, Jacob S. Lane, Kadyn M. Lewis, Shedrick D. Lindsey, Makenzi R. Maltezo, Ryan M. Melia, James R. Moore, Nicole N. Morales, Tayshawn Q. Pendleton, Aiden J. Psalmonds, Elijah L. Rogers, Bryant H. Sanchez Mora, Tamino Schoeffer, Len R. Spivey, and Ema G. Turner) and I started to gather data on this topic after the Mar-A-Lago investigation. 

We researched information on a number of cases of countries which had legally pursued a current or an ex-leader from 1972 to 2022. We focused more on what has happened in other cases, instead of debating the Trump-Daniels case, or other potential cases, involving Georgia elections, classified material, taxes, etc.

In our research, we found that of the 71 cases coded as “Free” by the respected non-profit organization known as Freedom House, 57 kept their fully free status. Another 14 became partly free. None of these cases in our survey became “not free.”

Additionally, we looked more in-depth at the 24 counties that had such a prosecution, those which also happened to be members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the United States is one of them). These are the best developed countries in the world. Twenty-three of these OECD stayed free, and only one (Mexico) became partly free when the legal system went after former President Luis Echevarria, years after he was in office.

These OECD countries were able to pursue their leaders through the legal system: Chile, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Some were able to dispense justice to an ex-chief executive on multiple occasions, as we’ve seen with Costa Rica, France and South Korea.

Those states that arrested, indicted or even jailed their leaders and dropped to “partly free” status include less developed countries like Ecuador, El Salvador, Malawi, Mali, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, and Serbia. Their cases show that for such countries with fragile institutions, going after an ex-leader could knock a country down to a lower level of freedom, though thankfully no situation had people lose their rights completely.

But some other republics or democracies which aren’t OECD level have been able to prosecute former presidents, prime ministers and other leaders and keep their freedoms, including Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, India, Mongolia, Panama, Peru, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, South Africa, Uruguay and Vanuatu.

Our LaGrange College students didn’t just discover that most countries preserve their freedoms while enforcing the law, even if it’s against a high-profile defendant. They learned that you can go beyond the partisan arguments to apply some scientific research, and learn what the historical record has been for such cases. And it’s pretty reassuring for our freedoms, even with such an unprecedented case.