Henchmen for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi on Monday dismissed arrest warrants issued against him by the international war crimes court as inconsequential with little near-term prospect of being carried out. But such confidence in a future without punitive measures is perhaps no more than posturing on the part of despots. Amid the turbulence of Arab Spring rebellions, the fate of once seemingly entrenched dictators has become uncertain, to say the very least.
"The ICC [International Criminal Court] has no legitimacy whatsoever," Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Monday. "We will deal with it." Indeed, with NATO bombs pounding Tripoli (reportedly killing one of Gadhafi's sons and three grandchildren in April) and growing western impatience with the four-month war, the prospect of a Hague trial on charges of crimes against humanity may seem little threat to the leader compared with other exit scenarios.
Amid the usual stream of bravado from Tripoli, however, reasons abound for Gadhafi to be anxious about how this may end for him.
And not just the Libyan leader. Syria strongman Bashar al-Assad sounded equal parts conciliatory and defiant as he called for a "national dialogue" in a televised speech last week. Though he blamed the violence that has killed more than 1,000 people in three months of anti-government unrest on foreign-directed saboteurs, Damascus notably permitted an opposition gathering in the capital on Monday. Yemen's ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, a one-time close ally in the U.S. war against terrorism, has yet to return from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being badly wounded in a rocket attack on his presidential palace in Sana earlier this month.
Saudi Arabia has also become home to Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled anti-government protests in January in the first of the Arab Spring democratic revolutions. Last week, Ben Ali, described in U.S. diplomatic cables as the head of "the Family," was convicted in absentia on charges of embezzling a fortune in cash and jewelry from the North African nation he ruled for more than three decades.
Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who in February followed Ben Ali in fallen Arab strongmen, is also facing criminal prosecution. He and his two sons are due to go on trial in August. Mubarak could face the death penalty, Egypt's Justice Minister has said.
While the U.S. is urging Arab autocrats to implement reforms demanded by their restive populations, the swift downfalls and bleak exit options have seemingly served as alternative case studies. Regional tyrants, from Syria's Assad to Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, have been moved to use all measures necessary to put down unrest and cling to power.
So then what? There may be no easy answers, experts who study democracy movements acknowledge.
"Once you have a revolution, I think the moment for reform is already passed," said Kurt Bassuener, senior associate with the Democratization Policy Council, a small think tank. "At that point, it's hard to satisfy those pent-up urges. The more delay and repression, the less likely that anything short of the fall of the regime will satisfy the people."
"Mass mobilization may not succeed--see Iran, Bahrain, etc.," Bassuener continued. "But then the regime has to become ever more repressive to maintain power, so reforming out of the problem becomes less likely."
"There was a time when there were many options for dictators," said Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House, which tracks worldwide governance trends. "Those days are over."
Saudi Arabia has become the exile venue of choice for dictators fleeing the Arab Spring uprisings, Ellen Knickmeyer observes at Foreign Policy magazine: "From King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, on down, the ruling al-Sauds have followed Arab tradition by offering asylum even to some toppled leaders they haven't particularly liked," she writes.
"This man asked for our protection. This custom is part of our life," Saudi Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Prince Turki bin Mohammed bin Saud al-Kabeer explained to Knickmeyer in Riyadh last week, referring to Tunisia's Ben Ali. "You can't refuse if someone comes and asks for your assistance and protection."
But the growing reach of international justice has in fact greatly reduced the willingness of western democracies to give refuge to washed-up dictators.
"If you look around the world, the number of ex-dictators is not that substantial," said Freedom House's Puddington. "The number of countries dictators can flee to has narrowed because of the new attitude among the democracies, the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. Even if the government [of refuge] allows you to stay, you are not secure because a private citizen can go to the court and want him put on trial."
While Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled to France in the 1990s and lived in luxurious exile (he returned to Haiti a few months ago), and Peru's Alberto Fujimori found refuge in Japan from 200o to 2007, Chile's junta leader Augusto Pinochet found his asylum in the United Kingdom insecure after he was placed under house arrest in 2000. It was the first application of universal jurisdiction. Extradited to Chile, Pinochet was placed under house arrest in 2004 and died in 2006 still facing 300 criminal charges.
Gadhafi's ICC charges would also certainly complicate his exile options, although he's shown little indication to date he's willing to entertain the option.
And while the Arab Spring rebellions seem to have stalled out for now, with violent repressions stalemated from Bahrain to Syria, few analysts would see the reigns of the region's tyrants as stable in the long-term.
Bassuener noted: "It will be very difficult to provide opportunities for growing populations with the political repression necessary to maintain control and the economic isolation that will attend it."
Dictators then and now:
Mengistu Haile Mariam led Ethiopia from the mid 1970s until he was ousted in the early 1990s and fled to Zimbabwe.
Uganda's Idi Amin, gotten rid of in the early 1980s, went to Saudi Arabia and lived there till he died.
Haiti's "Baby Doc" Duvalier fled to France in the 1990s where he lived in wealthy surrender. He returned to Haiti two months ago and was detained immediately.
Former Kyrgyz strongman Kurmanbek Bakiyev, toppled in 2010, fled to Belarus, where he remains.
Peru's Alberto Fujimori, who fled to Japan in 2000 during a corruption investigation, was extradited to Peru in 2007; he stood trial and was imprisoned in 2008 on human-rights abuses.
Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic was extradited to the Hague in 2001 to face war crimes charges and died at the Hague prison in 2006.
Chile's Augusto Pinochet fled the United Kingdom, but was placed under house arrest and extradited to Chile in 2000, under the first case of the application of universal jurisdiction. Pinochet was placed under house arrest in Chile in 2004, and died in 2006, still facing 300 criminal charges.
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