Trump May Join These High-Profile World Leaders Behind Bars

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
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Donald Trump was fined $1,000 and was once against held in contempt of court Monday, this time for violating a gag order. That marked the 10th time the ex-president has been held in contempt, inching Judge Juan Merchan closer to throwing him behind bars, he warned.

Merchan asserted that he doesn’t want to have Trump imprisoned ahead of his trial’s completion, but said the court-imposed fines—totaling a mere $10,000—have done little to deter the billionaire businessman-turned-politician from behaving during his hush-money trial.

If Trump were to be thrown in the clink, he’d be the first U.S. president to spend time behind bars. However, he’d be far from the first world leader to find himself imprisoned. Below are some notable politicians to be jailed and how they ended up there.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, walking alongside his wife, raises his fist in celebration of being released from prison.

Nelson Mandela upon being released from prison after 27 years in apartheid jails on Feb. 11, 1990.

Reuters

The nature of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and the potential lock-up of Trump could not be any more different. Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, who led his nation between 1994 to 1999, spent 27 years in prison for opposing its apartheid system. He was released in 1990, months before apartheid officially ended, after facing harsh prison conditions for decades. That included a particularly brutal spell at the Robben Island Prison off the coast of Cape Town, where he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry and was permitted to just a single visit—for 30 minutes—from loved ones annually. Despite being behind bars, Mandela became a household name across the globe, representing the struggle of Black South Africans and exposing the crippling racism that persisted in South Africa.

While Mandela was a champion of peace and justice, traits Trump routinely flouts, the ex-president has still made it a point to speak of—and even compare himself to—the late South African leader on multiple occasions. That included the day Mandela was released from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, when Trump announced he was divorcing his first wife, Ivana Trump—a news story Trump claimed received more attention stateside than that of Mandela’s release. “Nobody knew that Nelson Mandela existed,” he said. “He came out of jail that day and nobody knew it in New York and throughout the country.”

Most recently, Trump compared his prosecution to that of the South African leader in April by saying, “I don’t mind being Nelson Mandela, because I’m doing it for a reason. We’ve got to save our country from these fascists, these lunatics that we’re dealing with. They’re horrible people and they’re destroying our country.”

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

A flag is draped over a smiling Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had his corruption conviction overturned in 2021, opening him up to run for the presidency once again.

Reuters

Like Trump hopes to achieve this election season, the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was re-elected to lead Brazil in 2022 after a tumultuous period followed his first stint in office. Silva, who was president between 2003 to 2010, was convicted of money laundering and corruption in 2017 and was sentenced to 12 years behind bars. Petitions to stave off jail time were rejected by Brazilian courts, and he was ultimately thrown in prison the following year—sparking the Free Lula Movement that put pressure on authorities to allow Silva, who continued to campaign from behind bars, to again appeal his conviction. Those efforts culminated with his conviction being overturned in 2021.

The following year, he defeated Trump ally Jair Bolsonaro to win the presidency. Bolsonaro himself is now the subject of multiple investigations, including allegations he harassed a humpback whale off the Brazilian coast and that he fudged his COVID-19 vaccine card to travel to the U.S. at a time when tight entry restrictions on un-vaccinated foreigners remained in place.

Moshe Katsav

Moshe Katsav speaks at a podium with an Israeli flag in the background.

Moshe Katsav spent five years in prison after he was convicted of rape and other sexual offenses.

Reuters

Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president from 2000 to 2007, is among the few world leaders to spend time behind bars for sex crimes. He was accused of rape and sexual harassment by 10 women who worked under him in previous stints within the Israeli government. He resigned from the presidency in 2007 and was convicted of two counts of rape, obstruction of justice, and other charges in 2011—a landmark ruling that eventually made its way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. Katsav was sentenced to spend seven years in prison, but was released after five. The conviction decimated his standing in Israeli politics, despite still having the support of powerful allies, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said his conviction in 2011 marked a “sad day for Israel.”

Katsav asked a court to allow him to serve his sentence from his home, arguing he may divulge state secrets if he was attacked by fellow inmates. That request was ultimately denied and, later in 2011, he reported to the infamous Maasiyahu Prison in Ramla. While there, where he was denied access to television and newspapers, and was ordered to study sacred Jewish texts for large swaths of the day. He was said to have been harassed by fellow convicts he refused to pardon as president, leading to at least one being transferred. He was released in 2016, but was barred from speaking to the media and returning to politics.

Park Geun-hye

An officer escorts Park Geun-hye, who’s wearing handcuffs, into court.

Park Geun-hye was sentenced to spend 24 years in prison on corruption charges, but was released after just five.

Reuters

South Korea hasn’t been kind to its former leaders in recent decades. Four of its former presidents have been jailed for corruption since the 1980s, and another ex-president, Roh Moo-hyun, died by suicide in 2009 while being probed on similar allegations. While each instance made international news, the prosecution of Park Geun-hye still lives fresh in the minds of those in South Korea and elsewhere. Geun-hye, the first woman to be elected president in Korea and as the head of state anywhere in East Asia, was impeached in 2017 on accusations of bribery and abuse of power. She was criminally convicted the following year and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. However, Geun-hye was pardoned in 2022, five years into her sentence, and retreated to a life outside of politics. South Korea presidents are limited to a single five-year term, which insulates it against former leaders seeking to regain power in hopes they can stave off their own legal investigations.

Close calls in France

Nicolas Sarkozy exits a vehicle in Paris, France.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to save off prison time despite being convicted of corruption and influence peddling.

Reuters

France has pursued charges against two former presidents after they left office, but, despite convictions, neither has had to spend a second in the clink—at least, not yet. Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France between 2007-2012, was convicted of corruption, influence peddling, and illegal campaign financing in a pair of trials in 2021. He was handed twin custodial sentences—a year in jail and a year’s house arrest—but had those sentences placed on hold while he appeals. In a third case, which could go to trial this year, he’s accused of accepting illegal campaign funding from Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2007—more allegations that could eventually land him in prison if convicted.

Sarkozy has maintained he’s innocent of each charge against him and maintains sway in French politics, though nowhere the degree Trump has maintained in the U.S.

Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, also faced criminal charges. He was slapped with a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 after he was found guilty of influence peddling, breach of trust, and embezzlement while he was mayor of Paris, but never had to spend time behind bars. He died in 2019, aged 86.

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