Why are criminal national leaders getting off lightly?

Rayner Sylvester Yeo

Thai former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has served only a night in prison for power abuse. – Wikipedia pic, April 15, 2024.

IN February, former prime minister Najib Razak received a partial pardon from the Pardons Board, which halved his jail sentence from 12 to six years.

Later the same month, Thai former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was released from hospital detention. He was sentenced in August last year for power abuse but only served a night in prison before being transferred to hospital for health reasons.

He later received a pardon from the king of Thailand, who commuted his sentence to a year, and was subsequently released on parole in February.

Another recent example of such a case is former South African president Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment in 2021 after refusing to testify to a panel investigating corruption and cronyism during his presidency. He was freed on medical parole just two months into his jail term.

It is not new for former presidents or prime ministers who are jailed to be granted clemency and released after only serving a small part of their sentence.

South Korea is known for sending its former presidents to jail for corruption. However, the truth is that these former presidents are often released early after only serving part of their sentence.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has granted a pardon to former president Lee Myung-bak, who was jailed for bribery, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in also pardoned another former president, Park Geun-hye, who was jailed for corruption and power abuse.

Why are so many former leaders across the world who were sentenced to jail for wrongdoing getting released after only a brief incarceration?

There are many possible explanations for this. One of them is that the feudal mentality of giving special treatment to those with a higher status is still strong in many countries.

Another reason could be that the convicted leader still commands strong public support. This means the government is counting on the support of the former leader to remain in power. Deals could be made behind the scenes to secure their release in exchange for support.

However, that is not always the case. Sometimes, the leaders are released even though they are not on the side of the government of the day.

So why are they released?

It could be because the government wishes to appear magnanimous by pardoning its political nemesis. It could be that the jailed former leaders remain influential and have managed to put strong pressure on the government.

It is also possible that the incumbent leaders fear that they themselves could be sent to jail in the future and hope that by showing clemency now, they too would receive the same when they are  imprisoned later.

Whatever the reason, it is not healthy for national leaders who are been found to be criminals to get off lightly.

While their release might be completely legal, it is definitely against the spirit of the law. It surely makes a mockery of the principle of equality before the law.

We are not living in a feudal society where the lives of the higher class are deemed more valuable than those of the peasants.

A president or prime minister who abuses his position to benefit himself deserves to face the full force of the law. They have betrayed the trust of the people and should not be shown mercy that is not shown to the less influential convicts.

So, what can be done to prevent such a situation from recurring again and again?

One way is to enact a law to form a special body to review the pardon or parole applications of convicted former laders, separate from the bodies that review the pardon or parole applications of general convicts.

This process of review should also be conducted as openly and transparently as possible and under stricter scrutiny to ensure it is not abused.

That would be a good first step to address the problem. – April 15, 2024.

* Rayner Sylvester Yeo is a member of Agora Society. He was born in Sabah and is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur. Having grown up in a mixed-ethnic, multi-faith family and spent his working life in public, private and non-profit sectors, he believes diversity is the spice of life.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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