Show Trials, Show Justice
(Guilty by Reason of Insanity)
By A. D. Freudenheim

11 February 2001

One month ago today, something remarkable happened: Biljana Plavsic, the former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, turned herself in to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, where she was indicted on nine charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other violations of the Geneva Conventions. The indictment covers her conduct during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, when Plavsic was an associate of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - who has also been indicted on multiple charges, and who is still at large.

Plavsic's sudden decision comes with no admission of guilt - she denies that she either condoned or is guilty of the multiple murders and violations of human rights for which she stands accused. Rather, she has suggested that the ICTY's indictment has an aura of inevitability about it, and so, convinced of her own innocence, she has stated a preference for facing the Tribunal voluntarily, instead of living as a fugitive (like her associate Karadic). Surely the information that she can provide about Karadzic's activities will work to her benefit as she faces the Tribunal and its chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte. However, I can't help but wonder whether Plavsic views the activities of the ICTY as specious and questionable, or if she actually considers it capable of administering a fair justice, free of the political meddling which is notorious in the country she has left.

Also recently, here in New York, another remarkable event: Zuzana Justman's documentary "A Trial in Prague" had its United States premiere at the Jewish Film Festival. The film tells the story of one of the 20th century's most famous "show trials," when Rudolf Slánský, the secretary-general of the Communist party, and several other leading government officials in Czechoslovakia, were accused of treason and espionage in 1952. Presenting interviews with the widows and children of many of the defendants, along with one of the trial's survivors, Justman's documentary discloses the facts of the case as they were publicized at the time, and as they were subsequently revealed. In 1953, when Stalin died and was replaced by Khrushchev, a new (if vague) sense of openness lead to an acknowledgement of some mistakes in the prosecution of the case; decades later, with the collapse of the Soviet-controlled communist government, further evidence of the innocence of Slánský and his co-defendants came to light. It became obvious that their trial had served the political needs of the Czech and Russian communist parties, enabling a purge of the party leadership; further, it made examples of them as alleged traitors and Zionist collaborators, helping to distance the Soviet bloc countries from an association with the young state of Israel (among other things).

The Plavsic and Slánský events pose a basic question about justice, and the nature of how we view it and enforce it: why do states engage in "show trials," delaying what may be considered an unjust punishment in order to make an artificial display of even-handedness? The answer seems equally basic: if the rule of law is one of the cornerstones of a civilized society, then even the most ruthless and authoritarian of regimes must hold trials in order to maintain its aura of legitimacy and authority. In these cases, even if only to flatter themselves as they abuse the notion of justice for their own political ends, states use both the idea and the ideal of "justice" in an attempt to reverse an accepted value judgment: the (innocent) accused becomes guilty, while the (guilty) state becomes the innocent victim. Former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic certainly sees things this way; he recently compared the ICTY's indictments to the tactics used by the Nazis against the Jews and the Slavs, the implications of such an accusation being quite clear.[1] (Milosevic has also been indicted by the ICTY.) In light of Milosevic's statements, it is ironic that the treatment Plavsic will be shown at trial will no doubt be significantly more just and even-handed than any meted out under either her administration, or that of Milosevic's.

But if authoritarian and despotic regimes resort to false justice and show trials to bolster their legitimacy, what to make of the situation of Cao Maobing? Several news reports last week confirmed that Cao, an electrician and labor leader, has been placed in a psychiatric hospital by authorities in the People's Republic of China. Cao has been a target of the Chinese government because of his attempts to establish an independent labor union at the factory where he works, and where he has accused the managers of corruption and negligence. Now that his detention is being acknowledged, the director of No. 4 Psychiatric Hospital, where Cao is being held, has reportedly diagnosed him with "paranoid psychosis"; Human Rights in China, an organization that monitors incidents of human rights abuse in China, has retorted that Cao is not known to have any mental illnesses, and that Cao has been subjected to abuse and torture during his detention.[2]

Here, instead of using a veil of "justice," the Chinese authorities reassure themselves of their own goodness by casting Cao as criminally insane for breaking a law prohibiting independent labor unions. In so doing, they have taken a different route to the same destination as the Czechs in 1952 - and how much more elegant a solution! China has left behind the messy trappings of a show trial, which necessitates the falsification or fabrication of evidence and testimony and which creates an historical record of its indiscretions (which can be discovered later, as in the case of the Slánský trial). They have made their point about the primacy of the government with a simple declaration by a state psychiatrist. It is Q.E.D. to them: to go against the state - which in China is seen to own the lives of its citizens - Cao must be insane. In an awful way, they are correct in that assertion.

Slánský, Plavsic, and Cao. The unpredictability of human behavior - and human values - can have a strange effect upon justice. Just last week, two Libyan men accused of the bombing of a jet over Scotland more than a decade ago, which resulted in the deaths of more than two hundred people, received their verdicts from another court in The Netherlands: one guilty, one innocent. Returning home to Libya, the now-free man's appearance caused Colonel Gaddafi to rant against the poor justice meted out by the court which chose to convict one of his subjects, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi. I cannot pass judgment on al-Megrahi's guilt or innocence. I can only remark again on the capricious nature of authoritarian regimes - and of the people who run them - and their bizarre and perverted sense of justice.

[1]"Milosevic Says Yugoslav Election Tainted With Fear," Reuters news wire,
3 February 2001
[2]"Chinese Activist in Mental Hospital," Associated Press news wire, 8 February
2001; "China Said to Publish Unionist," by Erik Eckholm, The New York Times,
9 February 2001.
Copyright 2001, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.