Cheer Up, Donnie, Lots of Presidents Go to Jail

Photograph Source: Thomas Quine – CC BY 2.0

We are living through a unique historical moment. I know this because MSNBC keeps telling me so. With the exception of Rachel Maddow on her August 21, 2023 broadcast, MSNBC’s anchors have been repeating that this is the first time in history a president may be going to jail. It’s a remarkably parochial view. Many presidents have gone to jail—they just weren’t US presidents. What follows is a brief, nowhere near comprehensive list. Maybe Donald Trump, who currently faces 91 felony counts from 4 indictments, will cheer up once he sees his predicament is not unique.

But probably not.

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While not technically Panama’s head of state, General Manuel Noriega was Panama’s de facto ruler from 1983 to 1989. He was also one of Latin America’s biggest cocaine traffickers. (In the 2001 film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Tailor of Panama, a newcomer to the country is told that Panama City’s high-rise bank buildings are commonly referred to as the “cocaine towers.”). Noriega’s career serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a foreign strongman once he outlasts his usefulness to the US Empire. Noriega had been a CIA asset since the 1950s, trained at the United States’ infamous School of the Americas. The US indicted Noriega in 1988 for cocaine trafficking, money laundering, and impersonating a pineapple. President George Bush the Elder used the war on drugs as a pretext for the 1989 US invasion of Panama, unironically dubbed “Operation Just Cause.” Bush, who had been head of the CIA for twelve months under President Gerald Ford, knew about Noreiga’s extracurricular activities. Anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 Panamanians lost their lives so that the US could arrest one man.

Noriega, who died in 2017, spent the remainder of his life in US, French, and Panamanian prisons.

Georgios Papadopoulos was one of a group of Greek army officers who overthrew Greece’s democracy in 1967 and established a military junta. A few years later, in 1973, Papadopoulos was himself overthrown by another member of the junta. After democracy was restored in 1974, Papadopoulos received a sentence of death which was commuted to life imprisonment. Papadopoulos refused several offers of clemency contingent on his accepting guilt for the junta’s crimes.

Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Prime Minister of Italy four times, was sentenced to community service for tax fraud in 2013. (Take a moment to savor the thought of Trump picking up trash by the side of the highway, his orange prison coveralls nicely complementing his hair.)

Alberto Fujimori was Peru’s president throughout the 1990s. Afterwards, he was forced into exile in Japan on charges of corruption and human rights abuses. In 2005, Fujimori was arrested in Chile and extradited to Peru where, now 85, he is serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence not due to end until 2034.

And the Winner Is…

Pakistan contributes the most entries to our list.

Pakistani PM Imran Khan was forced out of office last year by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Khan, a former cricket champion with movie star good looks, was arrested on corruption charges on May 9, 2023. Public outcry has secured Khan’s release for now. Is Khan guilty? Maybe. Guiltier of corruption than any previous Pakistani chief executive? Probably not.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, father of Benazir, served first as president, then, following ratification of a new Constitution, as prime minister. Bhutto was overthrown in 1977 by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who Bhutto had appointed chief of army staff the year before. Following his conviction on a dodgy murder charge, Bhutto was executed in 1979. His conviction was narrowly upheld by the Pakistan Supreme Court. Zia would meet his end when his presidential airplane was blown up. According to one theory, the subject of an entertaining 2008 novel by Mohammad Hanif, the bomb was concealed in a case of mangoes.

Trump has not been charged with a capital offense, so he is unlikely to be executed, although one can hope.

Nineteen ninety-nine saw another in Pakistan’s long series of coups d’état when a civilian PM was again overthrown by a general he himself had promoted. After ousting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, General Pervez Musharraf ruled Pakistan for nine years before being driven into exile in London in 2008.

There matters should have rested. Instead, the silly git voluntarily returned to Pakistan to compete in the 2013 election. After his disqualification by Pakistani courts, Musharraf was arrested by the winner—Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf had overthrown—and again forced into exile until his death early this year.

The Ones Who Got Away

Then there are the presidents and prime ministers who ought to have gone to jail, but didn’t.

Noam Chomsky believes that every president since World War Two ought to have been indicted for war crimes. Harry Truman dropped two atom bombs on civilian population centers in Japan. Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, much less jail. A bill of impeachment with three articles, all relating to domestic activities, had already been adopted by the House Judiciary Committee. A fourth article of impeachment for Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia was not approved.

George W. Bush launched an aggressive, unnecessary, and immoral war against Iraq. He deserves to be prosecuted. These days, Bush is painting portraits in Dallas, a hobby he could just as easily indulge in prison.

There was a brief boomlet of interest in prosecuting Bush earlier this year. On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin; the charge: the unlawful transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia. Some commentators asked whether it wasn’t hypocritical to prosecute Putin without prosecuting Bush. Since there’s no chance that either man will stand in the dock, the question is academic. Bush will die peacefully of old age; Putin will probably die kissing pavement after a plunge from his office window.

Obama has not been prosecuted for his illegal drone strikes, some of which killed US citizens, or for supporting Saudi Arabia’s illegal and immoral war of aggression against Yemen. Ditto Donald Trump, and double ditto President Joe Biden who during his 2016 White House campaign promised to end US support for Saudi Arabia, yet didn’t.

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In October 1998, while Chile’s former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was in England visiting with his good friend former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (no comment) he was served with an international arrest warrant issued by a Spanish judge. Judge Baltasar Garzon sought to prosecute Pinochet under universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction holds that the torturer (which Pinochet’s regime certainly was), “like the slave-trader of old” is “hostis humani generis”: an enemy of all mankind who is subject to prosecution wherever he is found. Universal jurisdiction meant that Pinochet could be tried in Spain for crimes that he had committed in Chile against Chileans, even if the Chilean government objected.

Ultimately, Her Majesty’s Government decided against extraditing Pinochet to Spain on grounds of the 84-year-old former dictator’s worsening health (which, curiously, had been fine until the Spanish warrant was served). Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000. The Chilean senate stripped Pinochet of his immunity and it looked as though the general would finally face prosecution. However, this had not occurred when Pinochet went to his reward in December 2006.

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If Benjamin Netanyahu goes to jail, it won’t be for crimes against Gaza or Palestine. It will be for corruption, like Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu is trying to weaken Israel’s courts so he can stay out of jail.[1]

Human Rights Watch notes that “Ariel Sharon died without facing justice for his role in the massacres of hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians by Lebanese militias in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982.”

Hillary Laughs

On the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump threatened prison for opponent Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”). As of this writing, Secretary Clinton remains at liberty. No one I can think of will derive greater satisfaction from the prison doors shutting behind Trump. Hillary, this one’s for you.

1. Netanyahu’s proposal aims to accomplish three things: “give the governing coalition control over the appointment of judges, limit the Supreme Court’s ability to annul legislation through judicial review, and enable Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to override decisions made by the court.” Joshua Leifer, “Whose Constitution, Whose Democracy?” N. Y. Rev. of Bks., May 11, 2023.


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at