At long last, the long arm of the law is reaching holders of high office who have defaulted, and it is none too late
The two former presidents in jail are Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Park Geun-hye of South Korea. They have been condemned to 12 years and 24 years respectively on corruption charges. The two former presidents facing corruption and other charges are Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Francois Sarkozy of France.
Brazilians take over the streets in defence of Lula. A host of organisations have called for mass protests against a court order on his imprisonment
Of note is that all these corruptions have taken place in democratic countries, which leaves one to seriously ask where are the gaps present in democratic systems that allow those in high office to perpetrate their crimes even as during their electoral campaigns they loudly proclaim that they will fight corruption? An article in this week’s issue of The Economist titled, aptly perhaps, ‘The presidential curse’ alludes to the current president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, ‘whose main electoral promise was to end the impunity of the political establishment and the cosy links between politics and business’ (italics added). The issue of impunity locally was raised in this paper’s editorial of March 23, 2018 under the title ‘Will the culture of impunity ever be arrested?’
It would seem that this culture of impunity is a pattern in the cases of high level corruption involving both sitting and former presidents.
In fact, in the case of South Korea, all four of its ‘living ex-presidents have now been either convicted of corruption offences, or are in jail being tried or investigated for such crimes’. A week after the trial of three former spy chiefs involved in the corruption case against Ms Park Geun-hye (impeached a year ago) had begun in March, another former president, Lee Myung-bak, was arrested for accepting bribes while in office. Two other former presidents, Chun Dohwan and Roh Tae-woo, who held office in the 1980s and 1990s, have also been convicted for ‘extracting bribes from South Korea’s big industrial corporate, the chaebol’.
It is of interest to underline that there seems to be no time bar in levelling charges and convicting in these cases. Corruption is corruption, whenever it took place even if it is uncovered later and the appropriate charges framed, and trial is carried out by due process of law, leading to conviction.
It is also to be noted that actions which benefited the people during an incumbent’s mandate cannot be held up as a mitigating or redeeming factor as far as the corruption charges are concerned. This is illustrated by the case of the former Brazilian president Lula. In 2003, he was celebrated as the first working-class president in a country with stark inequality. During his mandate, Brazil rode a commodities boom and Lula became an international icon. Further, his social programs were credited with lifting 20 million people out of poverty, according to a World Bank study, and he left the presidency with soaring approval ratings.
None of this, however, could save him from being condemned to 12 years in jail. His imprisonment was celebrated by many as the sign of a new chapter in a country where the rich and powerful have historically gone unpunished for corruption, as they hoped that this would be the start of a new era, whereby, said an investment banker, ‘Maybe others who stole will also be jailed.’
To his credit, though, Lula said ‘I will comply with the order’ to hundreds of his supporters.
In contrast, former president Park Geun-hye refused to cooperate with prosecutors or show up in hearings. ‘She didn’t even have a sense of guilt,’ it was remarked about her. Her charges included bribery and coercion, as well as being accused of leaking classified information.
She was adulated as the first female president of South Korea when she was elected in 2013, her rise to the presidency being seen as a personal redemption 30 years after her father, then the country’s dictator, was assassinated. Here too, the fact that her father lifted the country out of poverty following the Korean War could not influence the decision to impeach, charge and then send her to jail.
As for South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma, he has been charged with corruption linked to a 1990s arms deal. He faces 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering, which dogged his presidency and were reinstated in 2016. Mr Zuma was forced out of office in February and, as all those in his position do, denies any wrongdoing. This does not blunt his critics who think that court action is long overdue.
It has also been pointed out that his financial adviser, Schabir Shaikh, was found guilty of trying to solicit bribes on his behalf from a French arms firm and was jailed in 2005.
Andrew Harding of the BBC says the former president appearing in court on corruption charges is hugely symbolic for South Africa’s young democracy as many see it as an era of impunity coming to an end. This theme of impunity is, tragically, like a constant.
In the case of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he also is being ordered to stand trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling, the latest one being that he took millions in illegal campaign financing from then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He has faced multiple corruption investigations since leaving office in 2012.
At long last, the long arm of the law is reaching holders of high office who have defaulted, and it is none too late.
* Published in print edition on 13 April 2018