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Condemned: Heads Of Regimes Who Were Handed The Death Sentence

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Nadeem F Paracha in this article recounts the history of the heads of regimes given death sentences before former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf.

On December 17, 2019, when a special court handed the former Pakistan president and military chief Parvez Musharraf the death sentence (for committing high treason), he became the 41st head of a regime to be given the death sentence.

Musharraf, who had come to power through a military coup in 1999, ruled the country as military chief and head of state till he was forced to resign in 2008 by the country’s two main parties, the PML-N and the PPP.

His regime, though initially popular after achieving some significant economic and foreign policy successes, started to unravel after 2006 when the economy began to decline, terror attacks by Islamic insurgents increased and he became more authoritarian in his attempts to neutralize the many political, judicial and economic problems which began to besiege his regime.

The case against him was filed through a petition by the third PML-N government in 2013. It was the PML-N regime that Musharraf had toppled in 1999. Musharraf was accused of violating Article 6 of the Pakistan constitution. This Article prescribes the death sentence to anyone found guilty of sabotaging the constitution which Musharraf was accused of doing twice: first when he launched his military coup in 1999 and then when he imposed an emergency in 2007.

Musharraf has been living in exile in Dubai and was thus tried by the court in abstantia. The current PTI regime has decided to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.

Before Musharraf: Heads of states and governments sentenced to death.*

*The list does not include heads of regimes executed as prisoners of war.

Li Si (Chancellor of China)

Li Si was Chancellor and Prime Minister of China during the Qin Dynasty. A philosopher and politician, he was made Chancellor in 246 BCE by the founder of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang. He served as Chancellor till 208 BCE and was instrumental in advising Qin Si Huang to suppress dissent. As Chancellor, he ordered the destruction of hundreds of ‘dangerous books’ and the suppression of ‘free thinkers.’

After Emperor Huang’s death, Si with Zaho Gao, blocked the coming to power of Huang’s chosen successor. Instead, they installed Prince Quin Er Shi as the new king. However, Gao turned against Si and advised the new king to remove Si. Backed by the emperor, Gao charged Si of committing treason. In 208 BCE Si was executed for high treason.

Zhao Xian (Emperor of China)

Zhao Xian came to the throne as the 16th emperor of China’s Song Dynasty. He was just 4 years old. However, after just two years on the throne, he was forced to abdicate in 1261 CE. He was succeeded by his brother. The Song Dynasty was eventually decimated by the Mongols. But Xian survived and was living in the Gansu province of China when the Mongol emperor, Yingzong, through an imperial edict, ordered Xian to commit suicide.

Xian who at the time was 52 years old was suspected of planning a coup against Yingzong.

Lady Jane Grey (Queen of England)

In 1553 CE, the King of England Edward VI willed that his cousin, Lady Jane be considered as his heir to the British Crown. The King, who was a staunch Protestant Christian, eliminated the name of his half-sister Mary as a possible heir because she was Catholic.

Jane was made queen after Edward’s death in 1553 but after just 9 days, the Privy Council of England, decided to pass the crown to Mary. Jane was arrested along with her husband and sentenced to death for treason. However, Mary reversed the death sentence. But when Jane’s father became involved with an armed rebellion against Mary, the death sentence was revived. Jane was executed for high treason in 1554 along with her husband.

Mary Stuart (Queen of Scotland)

Mary Stuart was just 6 days old when she was crowned as Queen of Scotland after her father King James V’s death in 1542 CE. She ruled through various regents. In 1558 she married the heir-apparent to the French throne, Francis. She became the queen consort of France. Mary returned to Scotland after her husband’s demise in 1560 and married her half-cousin, Henry Stuart.

Henry died in an alleged arson attack at his house in 1567. Mary then married James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell. Ironically, Hepburn had been accused of killing Henry. The marriage sparked an uprising against the royal couple and Mary was imprisoned. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her 1-year-old son, James.

After her release, she fled to England and asked the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, to help her regain the Scottish crown. Instead, Elizabeth got her arrested and imprisoned in various castles and houses. After 18 years of house arrest, Mary was accused of plotting the assassination of Elizabeth. She was beheaded in 1586.

Charles I (King of England, Scotland and Ireland)

Belonging to the powerful House of Stuarts, Charles became king of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1625 CE. He ruled through a lame parliament and refused its demands to turn England into a constitutional monarchy.

Charles became highly unpopular in England due to his heavy taxation policies and especially when he married Henrietta Maria of France. Maria was a Catholic and England was predominantly Protestant. The Protestant figureheads accused Charles of adopting Catholicism and undermining Protestantism.

After he attempted the Protestant Church of England to adopt Anglican Christian practices, he was vehemently criticized by staunch Protestant groups. Charles dissolved the parliament and led England into some unpopular wars. This drained the country’s finances. Charles enacted a new parliament but this one too had landed lords and merchants who demanded that England be turned into a constitutional monarchy. Charles refused and dissolved this parliament as well.

In 1640, after failing to raise adequate funds for the monarchy, Charles agreed to summon yet another parliament. This one passed a law stating that the King could not dissolve the parliament. The parliament also passed laws which stated that taxes and other money matters could only be approved through legislation.

In 1641, Charles arrived at the parliament with 400 soldiers to arrest 5 members of the assembly. He could not find them. He asked the speaker of the parliament to locate them but the speaker refused.

In 1642 began the English Civil War between the Royalists and troops assembled by the parliament. Three years later in 1645, Charles’ troops were defeated in Scotland and he was arrested. However, two years later, he escaped and forged an alliance with French. In 1649, Parliamentary troops led by the staunch Protestant land-owner and constitutionalist, Oliver Cromwell again defeated the Royalists.

Cromwell wanted Charles tried for treason and the monarchy abolished. But the parliament disagreed and suggested that a constitutional monarchy be set up with Charles as its figurehead. Cromwell marched on the parliament with his troops and arrested the parliamentarians.

Charles was tried for treason and convicted. He was executed in 1649. Cromwell then abolished the monarchy and declared himself as Lord Protector.

Louis XVI (King of France)

Louis XVI came to the throne of France in 1774 as a reform-minded king. But his economic reforms were thwarted by the landed elite on which the monarchy had traditionally banked for support and funds. However, some land reforms that he did manage to implement created serious food shortages which resulted in triggering riots.

In 1776 France supported the anti-British colonists in North America who were fighting a war for their independence from the British Crown. France’s involvement in that war further depleted the country’s finances and more economic problems ensued. In 1789 the country’s Estate-General (an assembly of landed elites, the clergy and ‘commoners’) was convened. The commoners (mostly from the middle-class) did not have much say or any legislative powers. But they were the loudest in their protest against the monarchy’s disastrous policies.

The middle-class members formed their own national assembly but it was not recognised by the king nor the Estate-General. However, as violent protests against rising prices spread, the king finally recognised the legitimacy of the national assembly. In 1791, he agreed to turn France into a constitutional monarchy.

The same year however, the King slipped away with his family to Varennes, a small town in South-East of France. He was suspected of being in contact with ‘enemy countries’ in a bid to invade France, terminate the national assembly, and crush the uprisings. In 1792, French revolutionaries stormed the royal palace, and a month later the monarchy was abolished. The revolutionaries declared France as a republic.

Louis was arrested and imprisoned for committing high treason. He was tried and executed in 1793.

Nicholas II (Emperor of Russia)

Nicholas II was crowned as Emperor of Russia in 1894. A conservative man, he frustrated the attempts of some of his aids to introduce modern economic reforms in Russia. Due to this, Russia faced some serious economic crisis which led to massive uprisings against the regime in 1905. The uprisings were brutally crushed by the emperor. The problems in this respect were also compounded by the defeat of Russia at the hands of Japanese forces in 1904.

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However, in 1906, Nicholas did agree to form a national assembly, but its powers were severely curtailed. Nicholas then led Russia into the First World War in 1914. After millions of Russian troops were killed in the war, a revolution erupted in Russia.

Nicholas was forced to abdicate. He was imprisoned by the government which was now dominated by liberal-democrats and moderate socialists. Nicholas requested that he be exiled to England with his family. The new government agreed, fearing that his presence in Russia would provoke the anger of the Bolshevik communists in the assembly.

However, neither Britain nor France was willing to accept Nicholas. He was thus retired along with his family to a remote house in Tobolsk. They were then moved to another house. In late 1917 the Bolsheviks dislodged the social democrats and liberals and took over power under Vladimir Lenin.

In 1918, after being informed that a pro-monarchy force was marching towards the house to rescue the royal family, the Bolshevik authorities in the area convened a meeting and handed the death sentence to the former monarch.

A dozen armed men arrived at the house where the emperor and his family were imprisoned. They gathered them in a room and opened fire, killing them all. The dead also included servants that the family had been allowed to keep.

Benito Mussolini (Prime Minister of Italy)

A former socialist, Benito Mussolini became a radical Italian nationalist to formulate what became to be known as fascism. After being expelled from the Italian Socialist Party for supporting Italy’s entry into the First World War, Mussolini joined the Italian army and fought in the war.

On his return to Italy, he began to advocate an extreme form of Italian nationalism and formed his own outfit, the National Fascist Party. In 1922, he led his party supporters, many of them armed, to hold a mass protest against the then government in Rome. The prime minister wanted to declare an emergency, but the King of Italy overruled the decision. He removed the PM and appointed Mussolini as the new prime minister. By 1925, through various laws legislated through the parliament, Mussolini vanquished all opposition and turned Italy into a one-party-state.

Promising to make Italy like it was during the Roman Empire, Mussolini tried to expand Italian colonial rule, especially in Africa. Italian forces also helped the Spanish fascist, Gen Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini struck a strong friendship with German Nazi ruler, Adolf Hitler. He joined the Second World War on the side of Germany.

But by 1943, Italian forces were being decimated by British and Soviet troops and his own party decided to oust him. The King removed him as prime minister and placed him under arrest. However, he was rescued by German paratroopers and made the head of a puppet regime in Northern Italy.

In 1945 when the Allies achieved the complete defeat of Germany, Mussolini and his mistress attempted to escape to Switzerland. But both were captured by Italian communist insurgents. Declared as traitors, they were executed by a firing squad. Mussolini’s body was then taken to Milan and hung upside down in a public square.

Liang Hongzhi and Chen Gongbo (Presidents of China) 

In 1911 and 1937, Hongzi, a Chinese politician, was associated with Chinese nationalists and warlords. In 1928, as Chinese nationalists pushed back the warlords that Hongzi was working with, he fled to Dalian, a Chinese region that was under the influence of Japan at the time.

After the second China-Japan war broke out in 1937, the Japanese chose Hongzi to lead a collaborative regime in North China. Called the ‘Reformed Government of the Republic of China,’ Hongzi was appointed its president by the Japanese.

After Chinese nationalist and communist fighters pushed back the Japanese, Hongzi was arrested by the nationalists. He was declared to be a traitor who had committed high treason. He was executed by a firing squad.

Chen Gongbo the 2nd president of the ‘Reformed Government’ suffered a similar fate.

Ion Antonescu (Prime Minister of Romania)

A Romanian war hero during the First World War, Antonescu developed far-right sympathies after the war. He also became anti-Semitic and came close to two Romanian fascist outfits, the National Christian Party and the Iron Guard.

He was made the Romanian military chief after the National Christian Party came to power in 1937. However, he was soon dismissed by the Romanian monarch but returned to politics in 1940 as prime minister during a political and economic crisis in Romania. He formed a right-wing regime with Iron Guard and sided with Nazi Germany as ally during the Second World War.

In 1941, he systematically eliminated the Iron Guard, and ruled with more freedom as PM. Inspired by the policies of Nazi Germany, Antonescu presided over ethnic-cleansing campaigns against non-Romanian groups and Jews.

In 1944 after Romania suffered heavy defeats at the hands of Soviet Union, the US and Britain, Antonescu sued for peace with the Allied Forces. However, he was soon toppled in a coup and arrested. Convicted of war crimes and treason, a People’s Tribunal handed him the death penalty. The penalty was criticized by nationalist groups who claimed that the tribunals were tilted in favour of the Romanian Communist Party that had opposed him.

Antonescu was executed in June 1946.

Dobri Bozhilov; Bogdan Filov; and Ivan Ivanov Bagryanov (Prime Ministers of Bulgaria)

Bozhilov was the Governor of the Bulgarian National Bank when he was made the Finance Minister in 1938. He was gain appointed Finance Minister in 1940 during the government of Bogdan Filov, a fervent supporter of Nazi Germany.

In 1943, Bozhilov moved up to become prime minister and kept Bulgaria close to Nazi Germany. Under him, Bulgaria virtually became a puppet state of Germany — even though Bozhilov refused to send Bulgaria’s Jews to the concentration camps when ordered by Germany.

In 1944 when it became apparent that Germany was losing the Second World War, Bozhilov resigned from his post. The same year the Soviet Union invaded Bulgaria and set up a pro-Soviet regime in the country. The regime arrested Bozhilov and tried him for corruption, war crimes and treason. He was executed in 1945.

51 years later, in 1996, the verdict was posthumously revoked by Bulgaria’s Supreme Court.

Ivan Bagryanov replaced Bozhilov when the latter resigned in 1944. With Soviet troops advancing towards Bulgaria, Ivan tried to negotiate a deal with the US and Britain and also reverse the anti-Jew laws passed in Bulgaria. But once the Soviet forces invaded the country and set up a communist regime, Ivan was tried for treason and war crimes and executed.

In 1996, the Bulgarian Supreme Court revoked the sentence.

Philippe Pétain (Head of State of ‘Vichy France’)

Petain was a French war hero during the First World War. After the war he was made the country’s military chief. When Germany attacked France during the Second World War, Petain, who had rebuilt the French army after the first war, decided to side with Nazi Germany. He ran a puppet regime at the behest of Germany before the latter’s defeat, and the liberation of France by the Allied Forces.

Petain was arrested and tried for treason. He was sentenced to death. But due to his advanced age, the death sentence was commuted to life sentence. He died in a French jail in 1951.

Ferenc Szálasi (Head of State of Hungary)

Leader of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party, Szalasi was a popular military man but with fascist sympathies. A staunch Hungarian nationalist, two other parties that he had formed were banned. In 1940 he was arrested and jailed for his right-wing radicalism.

In 1944 Nazi Germany feared that Hungry, an ally of Germany, was about to surrender to Allied Forces. Germany removed a former ally, Miklos Horthy (Regent of Hungry) and made Szalasi prime minister and head of state. Even though his rule lasted for just 6 months, it was brutal and is said to have slaughtered 15,000 Jews.

After the Second World War ended in Germany’s defeat, Szalasi was arrested in 1945. He was tried for war crimes and treason. He was given the death sentence and hanged in 1946.

Vidkun Quisling (Prime Minister of Norway)

Quisling was a noted Norwegian diplomat. In 1929 he was appointed Norway’s Minister of Defence. At the time he was a member of the centrist Farmers’ Party. In 1933, he quit the party and formed the more right-wing, National Union. He did not achieve much electoral success.

In 1940, during Nazi Germany’s invasion of Norway, Quisling tried to seize power through a coup, but failed. In 1942 he finally managed to become prime minister with the backing of the occupying German forces.

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After Germany was ousted from Norway by the Allied Forces, Quisling was arrested and tried for war crimes and treason. He was executed by a firing squad in 1945.

Celâl Bayar (President of Turkey)

Bayar was a close confidant of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Ataturk abolished the Ottoman regime in Turkey in 1922 and set up a secular nationalist republic. Bayar was given various ministerial posts by Kamal. In 1937, Bayar was appointed the prime minister of Turkey.

After Kamal’s death in 1938, Bayar clashed with President Ismet Inonu, but did not leave Kamal’s Republican Peoples’ Party. However, in 1946, he finally quit the party and founded the Democratic Party. Even though it was committed to Kamalist secularism and republicanism, it was more on the right.

In 1950, the Democratic Party decimated the Republican Peoples Party in that year’s election and Bayar was appointed the president of Turkey by the new parliament. He remained president till 1960 during which his party continued to defeat the Republican Party. The Democratic Party also initiated certain reforms that Kamalists believed were against the ideology of Ataturk.

In 1960 the Turkish military stepped in as tensions between the two parties increased. The military launched a coup and arrested Bayar. A court accused him of sabotaging Turkey’s secular constitution and thus, committing treason. He was sentenced to death.

However, in 1964 the sentence was reversed and he was released.

Adnan Menderes (Prime Minister of Turkey)

A liberal-democrat who, as a young man, was invited by Kamal Ataturk to join his Republican Peoples Party, Menderes was eventually expelled by the party in 1945. In response, he founded the Democratic Party with Celâl Bayar.

Menderes was elected prime minister thrice (1950, 1954 and 1957). After relations between his party and the Republican Party deteriorated, the military launched a coup in 1960 and ousted Menderes. A military court handed him the death sentence for misrule and sabotaging the constitution. Menderes tried to commit suicide in jail but was revived.

He was hanged in September 1961.

Alphonse Massamba-Débat (President of the Republic of Congo)

A school teacher, Alphonse became minister of education in Congo in the late 1950s. He was appointed to other ministries until a 1963 coup. A revolutionary military council appointed him as prime minister. He was soon elected as president but began to make Congo a one-party state. He initiated various socialist economic programs but since he had formed his own militia, he was often at loggerheads with the military.

In 1968 he suspended the constitution and arrested his former comrade, Captain Ngouabi. The same year, Ngouabi overthrew the Alphonse regime in a coup d’état. He was forced to quit politics and go home, which he did. He was put under house arrest till 1977 when Ngouabi was assassinated.

Alphonse was one of the accused. He was tried for plotting the assassination and executed.

Imre Nagy (Prime Minister of Hungary)

Nagy was a committed pro-Soviet communist who had worked for Soviet intelligence agency in Hungary. He then became a member of the communist regime installed in Hungary by the Soviet Union after World War Two. However, in 1956, when protests began to take shape against the regime and Soviet influence, Nagy was made the prime minister. He initiated various wide-ranging reforms which did not go down well with the Soviet Union.

In 1956, Soviet troops invaded Hungary and crushed the rebellion. Nagy sought asylum in the Yugoslavian embassy. He was lured out, arrested and tried for treason. He was then summarily executed in 1958 by the new Hungarian communist regime.

Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (Prime Minister of Iran)

A progressive intellectual, Hoveyda was appointed the prime minister of Iran by the Shah in 1965. On many occasions, he tried to crack down on corruption but was frustrated. In 1977, he was asked to leave the post, even though he remained a Shah loyalist.

In 1978, with revolutionary fervor and violence against the Shah increasing, Hovynda is said to have published a highly volatile pamphlet against Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Whereas the Shah and many top members of his regime were beginning to leave Iran, Hoveynda could not because his mother was unable to travel.

He was arrested by the new Islamic regime in 1979 and tried for ‘crimes against Islam.’ He was executed in April 1979.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Prime Minister of Pakistan)

A student of law and then a lawyer, ZA Bhutto was appointed as a minister at the age of 30 by Pakistan President Iskandar Mirza. Bhutto was retained in the cabinet when military chief ousted Mirza and became president.

Bhutto was made Foreign Minister in the early 1960s before he was eased out of the cabinet by Ayub in 1966. Bhutto formed his own party, the left-wing PPP in 1967. In December 1971, he became president after East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. Bhutto’s party had won the most seats in West Pakistan during the 1970 election.

The Bhutto regime was ousted in a reactionary military coup in July 1977. After he was conditionally released by Gen Zia, the Chief Martial Law Administer, Bhutto held a large rally in Lahore. In it he accused Zia of committing treason by violating the constitution. He thundered: ‘And the constitutional punishment for such a violation is death!’

Shaken by Bhutto’s ability to gather large crowds and his threat, Zia again arrested Bhutto but this time booked him for allegedly ordering the murder of a political opponent in 1974.

In 1979, Bhutto was handed the death sentence through a controversial high court trial. He was hanged in April 1979.

Jean-Bédel Bokassa (Emperor of Central Africa)

Bokassa came to power through a military coup in 1976 and soon declared himself to be an emperor. His was a highly volatile, brutal and erratic regime, so much so, that the country’s main foreign influencer, France, had to engineer his ouster in 1979.

He escaped the country and was tried in absentia for corruption, treason, torture and other crimes. In 1986 he returned to the country and was tried again. He was handed the death penalty. The sentence was commuted to solitary confinement. He was released in 1993 and he died in 1996.

Nicolae Ceaușescu (President of Romania)

A committed member of the Romanian Communist Party, Ceausescu rose through the ranks to become the president of Romania in 1974. Seen as one of the strongest leaders in the Soviet Bloc countries, his fall was quick and dramatic. As the Berlin Wall came down in Berlin and Soviet influence began to quickly recede, the Romanian military changed sides and began to support Romanian protesters.

Ceausescu boarded a helicopter with his wife from the presidential palace and tried to escape Romania. The helicopter was ordered to land by the military and the husband and wife then tried to hide in a village. They were discovered and handed over to the army. A military court tried him for ‘economic sabotage’ and ‘genocide.’   Ceausescu and his wife were then executed by a firing squad.

Francisco Macías Nguema (President of Equatorial Guinea)

President from 1968 till 1979. Led a highly corrupt and violent regime. Was overthrown in a military coup in 1979. Was tried for various crimes and executed in 1979.

Mengistu Haile Mariam (Head of State of Ethiopia)

Mengistu was part of a left-wing revolution which overthrew the Ethiopian monarchy. He became head of state in 1977 and remained so till the fall of his regime in 1991. He fled to exile in Zimbabwe. An Ethiopian court tried him in absentia and handed him the death sentence. He never returned to Ethiopia, even though the sentence still stands.

Chun Doo-hwan (President of South Korea)

Chun was a South Korean army general who seized power in 1979 through a coup de ’tat. He ruled through strong-arm tactics and by outlawing all political parties. In 1987, he decided to democratize the country and refused to run for president. In 1988, he stepped down.

Few years later his name came up during an investigation into a massacre that took place during his rule. Chun was implicated in 1996 and handed the death sentence for ordering the massacre. The death sentence was reversed by President Kim Young-sam on the advice of president-elect Kim Dae-jung. Ironically, the Chun regime had sentenced Dae-jung to hang 20 years earlier.

Also …

  • Jozef Tiso (President of Slovak Republic)

Executed in 1947.

  • Hideki Tojo (Prime Minister of Japan)

Executed in 1948

  • Moussa Traoré (President of Mali)

Sentenced to death in 1991. Sentence commuted. Released in 2002.

  • Ferdinand Marcos (President of Philippines)

Sentenced to death for corruption and treason. Sentence commuted.

  • Sadam Hussain (President of Iraq)

Executed in 2006.


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