Presidents are not above the law. The latest news out of South Korea is that former President Park Geun-Hye has been arrested after her ouster and now faces corruption charges that could put her away for quite a while. The indictment comes after a series of bombshell revelations about bizarre cults and religious groups that seem to have hijacked South Korea’s political system. It is not known whether President Park’s connections will help her with her legal case, but even if the worst happens, she can at least take comfort knowing that she’s far from the first former head of state to be indicted and (potentially) sent to prison. In fact, all talk of cults aside, some cases of the other disgraced former presidents are downright crazy.
1. Chun Doo-hwan, President of South Korea (1980 – 1988)
Former President Pak isn’t the first South Korean head of state to face a hard time. She’s lucky she isn’t Korea’s fifth president, Chun Doo-hwan, who managed to get himself sentenced to death in 1996. Chun came to power in a series of bureaucratic maneuvers worthy of the Valachi Papers, but the short version is that as head of the Korean CIA, he fomented crisis after crisis until he was allowed to promote himself to four-star general in 1980, and then he just took over. Like any ambitious dictator, Chun set up some re-education camps and put tens of thousands of ordinary people in them to fight: “violence, smuggling, drugs, and deceptions,” which is an ambitious agenda for somebody who never got elected to anything.
The party ended for Chun in 1987, when reformist candidate Roh Tae-woo (pronounced: “No Say-ooh”) won the first half-honest election in recent Korean history. A few years later, President Kim Young-sam (pronounced: “Kim Young-sam”) had the legislature retroactively outlaw one of the totally-legal-at-the-time massacres Chun had presided over, and the former “president” was arrested and sentenced to death. Ironically, he was spared at the insistence of incoming President Kim Dae-Jung (pronounced however you like, who cares), a man Chun himself had once sentenced to death and then spared.
2. Canaan Banana, President of Zimbabwe (1980 – 1987)
No, his name isn’t a joke, and for a time he did run something of a banana republic. Canaan Banana was Zimbabwe’s first president, from 1980 to 1987, and the man who oversaw the former Rhodesia’s difficult transition out of colonial rule and into local democracy. At least, it would have been a democracy if it hadn’t been for the continuous atmosphere of revolution and vote-rigging it took to keep President Banana in power while Robert Mugabe was prime minister.
That wasn’t what got him arrested though. Rigging a few elections is more of a minor faux pas in Zimbabwe than the felony it would be elsewhere. No, what got Canaan Banana, the George Washington of Zimbabwe, in trouble were sodomy charges that came to light during the murder trial of one of his former bodyguards, who was accused of shooting a man who mocked him for being “Banana’s wife.” Fearing a frame-up, Banana fled to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela himself talked him into going back to face trial. Banana was convicted, defrocked (he was also a priest, lol), and sentenced to 10 years in prison, with nine suspended.
3. Chen Shui-bian, President of the Republic of China – Taiwan (2000 – 2008)
Chen Shui-bian was the president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008. He was one of those charismatic reformist types who crop up in countries that have been ruled by the same jowly autocrats for 50-plus years without real elections. As a young man, Chen Shui-bian worked as the editor of a dissident newspaper and got thrown in jail a lot for criticizing the ruling Kuomintang Party. Later, as a lawyer, he worked to overturn unjust laws and found a new political party that – it was hoped – would be the voice of the people.
He won the 2000 election with 39 percent of the total vote, which probably took the edge off of George Bush’s 49.9-percent win that year. Like many “charismatic reformer types,” President Chen seems to have been crusading not so much for the people as for their money, and he, his wife, his daughter, and dozens of their closest friends seem to have looted the nation’s treasury until it howled. Chen’s corruption got so bad, and so obvious that eventually, even the voters noticed, and Chen’s approval rating tanked to less than 6 percent. He was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for bribery and corruption in 2009, though he spent some of the money he swindled on a good lawyer, because on appeal the sentence was reduced to first 19 years, and then to time served in 2015.
4. Mahmut Celâl Bayar, President of Turkey (1950 – 1960)
When Mahmut Celâl Bayar was born the son of a religious leader in the Ottoman Empire, Queen Victoria was on the throne in England, Otto von Bismarck was Chancellor of Germany, and Jack the Ripper hadn’t killed anybody yet. When he died, Howard the Duck was in theaters across America and “Papa Don’t Preach” was in heavy rotation on the radio. Bayar holds the record for the longest-lived head of state ever, at 103 years, 98 days, which is not bad for a man who was sentenced to death in 1961, after a coup removed him from office as Turkey’s third president. In his 20s, Mahmut Celâl Bayar was one of the notorious Young Turks, a genocidal gang of hyper-nationalistic militants who stormed into power under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Appointed prime minister in 1937, and elected president in 1950, Bayar seems to have done well enough.
In his 20s, Mahmut Celâl Bayar was one of the notorious Young Turks, a genocidal gang of hyper-nationalistic militants who stormed into power under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Appointed prime minister in 1937, and elected president in 1950, Bayar seems to have done well enough in the job for ten years, until a military coup overthrew him in 1960. In 1961, one of the regime’s kangaroo courts made up a bunch of charges and summarily sentenced him to death. The then-79-year-old ex-president pleaded illness and his sentence was eventually commuted so he could die at home in peace. In the event, Bayar outlived the regime, the members of the court that sentenced him, and probably quite a few of their kids too.
5. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, President of Bangladesh
Throughout his tumultuous political career, Hussain Muhammad Ershad was a man of contradictions. He rose to power in Bangladesh in a military coup in 1982, but then he gave up power to a civilian government in 1990. He built a bunch of much-needed infrastructure projects in Bangladesh during his time, and he seems to have wanted to modernize the country, but he also tossed Bangladesh’s secular constitution out the window and declared Islam the official state religion. In the office, he was known as a strict proponent of the rule of law, yet since his term, he’s been indicted more times than Charles Manson.
Ershad’s first arrest came before he had technically left office, in 1990, when the “neutral” authority he appointed to oversee a free election threw him into jail for smuggling gold. He beat that rap in 1991 but was then arrested again in 1991 on unrelated corruption charges. These stuck for a while, and Ershad had to run for president in 1996 from inside his prison cell. He got out in 1997, but then he went right back in for yet another corruption case, this one so complicated that the verdict took 91 pages to print. He ran for office from prison again in 2004, was released in 2007, and has since reportedly retired – though charges are still pending in a few other corruption cases. He may yet go back to prison so he can run for president again.
6. José “Erap” Marcelo Ejército, President of The Philippines (1998 – 2001)
Presidents of The Philippines may be legally required to be surrealistically colorful figures, and José Marcelo Ejército, known simply as “Erap” is as bright as they get. A former actor and model, Erap worked his way up the Philippines’ political structure throughout the 1990s, winning a reputation as a man of the people and voice for the voiceless, and all the other lies greedy thieves like to tell about themselves while they’re marching toward power. Erap managed to win the presidency in 1998 and made fighting against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF; tee-hee) his signature initiative. His less-signature initiative was to take a graft from the cockfighting and government subsidy rackets, which got him impeached in January 2001.
Erap’s corruption was mundane, Third World stuff, but his impeachment was spectacular. First, a conspirator alleged that His Excellency had a slush fund under the name “Jose Velarde,” where he stashed over half a billion Pesos in illegal payoffs. When a sealed envelope was allegedly containing evidence was delivered to the Supreme Court justices hearing the case, 11 out of the 21 voted not to open it. The entire prosecution team walked out in protest. That night, angry citizens staged a mini-riot in the same place where anti-Marcos riots had broken out years before, the vice president announced Erap’s resignation, and the Supreme Court declared that the presidency was vacant. Erap denied he had stepped down and demanded some powerful peoples’ resignations, which shoved the establishment into high gear to get him adequately indicted before he could start spilling the beans about corruption. That April, Erap was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, later reduced by the former vice president who had deposed him. He keeps quiet these days, which may be for the best.
7. Alberto Kenya Fujimori Fujimori, President of Peru (1990 – 2000)
“Alberto Kenya Fujimori Fujimori” is not a typo: the former Peruvian president’s mother and father were both Japanese emigres named Fujimori, and so he got the name twice. Born in Peru in 1938, Fujimori Fujimori got elected president of Peru in 1990. In his ten years in office, he took stern measures to break the back of Peru’s two terrorist rebellions: Shining Path and Tupac Amaru. After beating the insurgents, restoring Peru’s economy, and draining the swamp of Lima politics, Fujimori ended his time as head of state under a cloud for corruption and crimes against humanity.
Near the end of his term, knowing that the ax had to drop soon, Fujimori booked a “state visit” to Japan and asked for asylum there. Then he tried to resign his office via fax (kids ask your parents what that was). The Peruvian Congress declined his kind offer, preferring to impeach him instead, and they did just that. In 2005, he made the mistake of visiting Chile, where he was arrested and sent back to Peru to face charges that he had illegally authorized a search-and-seizure operation. He was found guilty and got six years. Then, while he was sitting in prison, the government hit him with a huge raft of charges that included murder, bribery, and crimes against humanity for all the violence it took to break the rebels. He got a lot of separate prison terms, but under Peruvian law, they all run concurrently, so he could be out in 2030 when he’s 92 years old.
8. Manuel “Ping Pong Ball” Noriega, Military Leader of Panama (1983 – 1989)
When Americans woke up on the morning of December 20, 1989, to find out their government had invaded Panama, it came as a surprise to many of them. As far as most people knew, Panama’s leader, Manuel Noriega, was a typical Latin American strongman and run-of-the-mill drug smuggler who enjoyed US support. Suddenly knocking him out of power like that was unexpected, and nobody seemed more surprised than Noriega himself, who fled to the Vatican Embassy and asked for sanctuary. During his confinement there, US forces kept him agitated with a barrage of ’80s heavy metal music blasted from huge speakers they flew into the country to harass their target. Eventually, unable to stand another run through “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Noriega surrendered.
This may have been the end of Noriega’s time in a one-person mosh pit, but it was just the beginning of multiple prison sentences that he’s still serving. First, a federal court in the United States indicted Noriega for drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering and conveniently didn’t allow testimony on whether or not he had any conspirators. That case ended with Noriega getting 40 years (later reduced to 30). After he was “released” in 2007, he was immediately re-detained for extradition to France on murder and extortion charges. The French court gave him 20 years in 2011, but then the French government extradited him to Panama, where he faced more charges and got another 20 years. Manuel Noriega is eligible for release in the early 2030s when he will presumably be extradited to humanity’s first Moon colony and given another 20 years in space-prison.
9. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, President of Afghanistan (1987 – 1992)
Mohammad Najibullah was a typical communist bureaucrat his whole life. Living in Afghanistan during that country’s brief flirtation with the 20th century, Najibullah joined the local Soviet-dominated communist party and quietly, anonymously worked his way up the ranks. In 1987, as the Soviet military was pulling out of its decade-long losing fight against what we now call Islamists, and the Mujahideen resistance was overwhelming the country, Najibullah had the bad luck to be picked as the new head of state. Two years later, he
Najibullah fled to the UN mission in Afghanistan, which was promptly besieged by outraged holy warriors. This “virtual confinement” started without anybody having made any definite plans for how to end it, and so it just sort of stretched out into a de facto prison term of four years, during which Najibullah didn’t dare set foot outside the perimeter. Like a fool, he seems to have thought that the Taliban would set him free during its 1996 takeover because they were Pushtun tribesmen like him. Refusing offers from his old enemies to smuggle him out before the inevitable Taliban takeover, Najibullah sat and waited for the government to fall. When it did, he walked out of his virtual confinement and embraced his Taliban liberators, who immediately arrested him. He wasn’t confined long this time though – right after the fall of Kabul, Najibullah and his brother were castrated and dragged behind a truck until they were dead.
10. Charles Taylor, President of Liberia (1997 – 2003)
Some people are born overachievers, and Liberia’s Charles Taylor is a prime example of the breed. Rising to power in Liberia just in time for the country to erupt into one of the world’s most surreal civil wars. The war that saw, naked teenagers in blond wigs forming death squads and playing soccer with their victims’ heads – Taylor brought his characteristic ingenuity and worked ethic to the task of out war-
When the civil war ended, Taylor ran for president in 1997 under the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.” That seems to have been a winning approach because Taylor won that election with 75 percent of the vote. When the Second Liberian Civil War broke out two years later, Liberia’s neighboring countries seem to have decided Taylor need to go. Suddenly discovering a newfound respect for human rights and civil liberties, they indicted Taylor for a raft of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among Taylor’s charges: Murder, Terrorism, Rape, Slavery, Pillage, and “Outrages Upon Human Dignity.” After several escape attempts, Taylor was finally extradited to England, where he is now serving a 50-year sentence. His telephone privileges are reportedly suspended because he was caught using the prison’s phone line to make long-distance calls and threaten his many, many enemies in Liberia.