Aug 26, 2022 - World

Former leaders have been jailed or charged all over the world

Data: Axios Research. Note: "Complicated" includes cases that are unclear, or where a former leader was temporarily detained (often following a coup) but never formally charged. Impeachments were not included. Map: Nicki Camberg/Axios

Former President Trump and a number of his close allies have argued that the multiple investigations he's facing, and in particular the search of his Mar-a-Lago property, are something out of a "banana republic."

The big picture: Investigations into former leaders are hardly rare around the world. In at least 76 countries, leaders who left office since 2000 have been jailed or prosecuted — including in democracies like France, Israel and South Korea.

  • Since 1980, around half of the world's countries have had at least one such case, and that's not counting impeachments or coups.

Driving the news: Investigations into former leaders have been in the news around the world lately.

  • Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing arrest on terrorism charges for comments he made at a rally. He maintains he did nothing wrong, and his pre-arrest bail was extended Thursday through Sept. 1.
  • Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is heading to prison after his conviction for corruption in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scheme was upheld on Tuesday.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is contesting an election after his corruption conviction was thrown out. Meanwhile, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading his party into an election while his own corruption trial is ongoing. He says he is a victim of a "witch hunt."
  • A prosecutor in Argentina this week requested a 12-year sentence in corruption proceedings against former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, though she has legal immunity in her current role as vice president. She's denied any wrongdoing.

Several ex-leaders from wealthy democracies have found themselves on trial in the past two decades.

  • Like Trump, Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had his home searched after leaving office. He was convicted in two separate cases last year and sentenced to prison (he's appealing).
  • In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years for corruption. She was pardoned by her successor in December after serving five.
  • In Taiwan, former President Chen Shui-bian was convicted of bribery in 2009.
  • Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been in and out of court for three decades and was temporarily barred from seeking office due to a tax fraud conviction. But he'll still be a kingmaker in next month's election, at the age of 85.
    • He's far from the only leader for whom a trial or even conviction was not career-ending.

For obvious reasons, the countries that are least likely to be filled in on our map are monarchies or dictatorships where leaders are long-serving and untouchable.

  • In some countries, leaders may be inclined to cling to power due to the risk of prison if they don't. That's one explanation for the trend of African leaders seeking third terms.
  • But the region where the most countries have jailed or prosecuted former leaders over the last two decades is Latin America. In Peru, every president but one who served between 1985 and 2018 has been arrested or charged.
  • Former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is under investigation for alleged corruption but has not been charged.

In the vast majority of cases all over the world, the charges former leaders have faced relate to corruption.

Worth noting:

  • Because we were looking at cases where leaders were jailed or prosecuted after leaving office, we didn't include impeachments and didn't automatically include coups — though cases where leaders were detained following coups are in the "complicated" category.
  • We did include cases where ex-leaders were prosecuted in absentia or faced charges that were later dropped. We didn't include cases where leaders left office before 2000 but were charged more recently (Chile's Augusto Pinochet, for example). We didn't include cases where the charges came solely from international courts.
  • In the vast majority of these cases, the ex-leader was prosecuted or jailed for their activities in office, rather than before or after.
  • We were only considering leaders who held the most powerful political office in each country, though that required judgment calls in a few cases.
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