Sat, 28 Jun 2003

Miren Gutiirrez, Editor-in-Chief, Inter Press Service, Rome

Il Cavaliere Silvio Berlusconi is off the hook for the time being. Last week, the Italian parliament approved an immunity bill that will freeze a trial in Milan where the Italian Prime Minister is charged with bribing judges over a 1985 business deal involving a corporate takeover battle.

The magistrates will be able to investigate, but cannot touch him while he is in power. Immunity is not his only buffer against liability. He faced criminal charges of false accounting before his government decriminalized it, reduced the limit within which a suspect can be brought to trial, and gave defendants the right to have their case transferred if they have "legitimate suspicion" that a court is biased. Berlusconi has been cleared of most charges. But if he loses the elections in 2006 or loses power before then he could go to prison if found guilty.

Corrupt presidents cannot afford to lose power. Without the armor of presidency, the world is an inhospitable place.

"All presidents, corrupt and not corrupt, want to hold power for as long as possible," Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington told IPS in a written interview.

"But a corrupt president also wants to stay in power to keep getting rich and protect himself from the jaws of justice."

Peter Eigen, chairman of Transparency International in Berlin, told IPS "it is essential that politicians and public officials know that corruption is a high-risk strategy."

And so perhaps many have thought like Berlusconi, and shielded themselves behind legal fences.

The main obstacle to bringing former Nicaraguan president Arnoldo Aleman to justice was that he enjoyed immunity from prosecution; he was appointed president of the Nicaraguan Assembly after he stepped down as President.

Aleman faces charges of misappropriating at least US$100 million in one of the poorest countries of Latin America.

Mobutu Sese Seko, former president of Zaire (renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he aws thrown out in 1997) may be the most notorious case of a president using the state as private property while protecting himself from prosecution. He ruled at the head of a one-party state for more than 30 years, during which he pocketed an estimated $5 billion. He enjoyed the backing of western leaders and institutions that saw him as a foil to leftist states such as Angola.

President Charles Taylor's Liberia comes close. The law gives Taylor the right to dispose of all "strategic commodities" such as mineral resources, timber, and artefacts.

When things became grim, some presidents have gone abroad on permanent holidays. Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori who was dismissed by Peru's Congress in November 2000 as "morally unfit" to govern left for Japan, and has not returned since.

Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada who claimed he was not healthy enough to be prosecuted. Medical bills would not be a problem, though. Estrada, ousted in 2002, stands accused of stockpiling $78 million from a gambling racket, misappropriated tax revenues and illicit investments.

The law never caught up with some presidents, even if they took no precautions.

The term of former Panamian president Ernesto Perez Balladares (1994-1999) was plagued by corruption cases. A "narcocheck" funded some of his presidential campaign, his ministers appropriated state property, his direct involvement in the sale of hundreds of visas to Chinese emigrants on their way to the U.S. was well documented. But the cases never got to the courts.

Panama has been also a well-known refuge for runaway presidents. Ousted by the Congress following corruption allegations just six months into his presidency, Abdala Bucaram fled Ecuador to take refuge in Panama. His elected successor, Jamil Mahuad, was overthrown by a coup in January 2000 after it was discovered that he accepted campaign donations from a corrupt banker.

Gen. (ret) Soeharto, whose family controlled an empire valued anywhere from $16 billion to $35 billion during his 32 years in power, has survived three successors since he was persuaded to resign in 1998. B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid, and President Megawati Soekarnoputri have all failed to bring him to trial.

"Presidents and even former presidents are very powerful, and prosecuting them requires the will to prosecute," says Lewis. "It usually requires months if not years of public exposure and mounting disgust, gutsy, fearless law enforcement officials and judges who do not flinch in the face of power."

How far are the heads of state responsible for widespread corruption under them? "They are totally responsible," says Lewis. "High-level corruption is more pernicious in poor countries. When a leader loots what precious assets the people and their country actually have, the moral outrage is much greater. More people, innocent people are affected and the unfairness and injustice are extreme."

The tone and attitude about corruption starts at the very top, in the first hour they are sworn in, says Lewis. "There is a legal, prosecutorial standard, the famous line about the abuse of power during Watergate in the U.S.: What did they know and when did they know it," he says. "But there is a moral and political standard that is less literal. With the first whiff of corruption, did the leader act decisively to cleanse the situation? Inaction and silence speaks volumes."

But Eigen said: "A head of state or government must demonstrate the political will to fight corruption, but success requires a broad base of support and engagement," he says.

Of the 10 countries seen as the most corrupt in the Transparency International index of last year, half are in Africa. But few African presidents have been prosecuted for corruption. Are corrupt presidents more likely to escape without punishment in Africa?

"The widespread corruption of the regime of Sani Abacha in Nigeria or Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya is widely recognized, but corruption has been so pernicious in both countries that it would be wrong to focus on the heads of state alone," says Eigen.

Or on Africa. Apart from Italy, France and Germany, both democratic countries with an independent judiciary, have seen a president and a former chancellor investigated for corruption; Jacques Chirac for his involvement in the Elf scandal and for funding for his election when he was mayor of Paris, and Helmut Kohl for unlawful political donations.

"Democracy without accountability is not much of a democracy at all," says Lewis. "The sad truth is that the most powerful, venal interests relatively easily manipulate whomever is in power, whether the government is a repressive dictatorship or a democracy." The Center for Public Integrity is well known for its investigative reports on the funding of presidential campaigns in the U.S.

Many presidents and former presidents now face accusations instead of dying of old age or retiring at some beach resort. While it is encouraging, says Lewis, "the world still has far too much pervasive corruption that is never prosecuted."

Eigen adds, "Corruption is now recognized for what it is: A scourge that breeds social, political and economic crises, that traps millions in poverty and hunger, undermines democracy and the rule of law, and distorts trade and plunders natural resources."