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Political Pardons

Political pardons cannot be a tool of self-protection or for furthering a partisan purpose they should remain a progressive tool for the larger good of society, civic evolution and societal heal, depending only on the circumstances, sensitivities and implications involved.

Bhopinder Singh | New Delhi |

Political pardons can be necessary, controversial or even regrettable, depending on the manner, circumstances and the overarching intent that accompany them. The noble belief of deeper healing was inherent in Nelson Mandela’s famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which implicitly sought a spirit of forgiveness, restoration and healing through the debris of a wounded nation.

Post-apartheid South Africa had embarked upon a systemic amnesty where the deal for truth was a sacrifice by way of confession and forgiveness by the perpetrator and the sufferer, respectively. No such spirit prevailed in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ironfisted reign in Iraq. Saddam’s removal had paved way for the majority Shias to reassert themselves against the minority Sunnis who composed the bulk of Saddam’s earlier Baathist government ~ the sectarian faultlines deepened, and revenge and mayhem became the norm.

New Shia-dominated leadership freed incarcerated Shias from jails, whilst targeting the Sunnis with attacks, abductions and incarcerations. Two different nations, two different instincts at play and two different outcomes ~ South Africa has moved on, and Iraq continues to simmer in violence. Political pardons don’t always succeed, as intended or postulated. Besieged Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, had overcome his initial reluctance to pardon hardcore members of the dreaded Taliban as a goodwill gesture to draw the grouping into negotiations for peace.

Taliban was expected to reciprocate the move by responding with its own release of prisoners held by it and shunning violence. It did neither, though it did enter negotiations, albeit it drove its own regressive and intransigent demands. Within months of the political pardon, Afghanistan today is caught in a vortex of unimaginable violence and desperation, with the Taliban increasing its brutality and ground-surge to unprecedented levels. Similarly, the ill-intended facade of political pardons in the ensuing African conflict of Ethiopia’s civil war, was almost predestined to fuel more violence.

In 2018, Ethiopia’s newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was endearing himself to the Western media by making the right noises about reforms, ending the bloody war with neighbouring Eritrea, as also releasing political prisoners in the ethnically divided Ethiopia. The West was mesmerised by the new hope in Abiy and within a year of his tenure, the Ethiopian Prime Minister was surprisingly given the Nobel Peace Prize.

What outsiders had missed was the ethnic selectivity in issuing political pardons ~ those sharing Abiy’s own ethnic roots were granted the bulk of political pardons. The diminishment of one ethnicity at the cost of pardoning and privileging the other is at the root of the ensuing civil war that threatens to tear up the Horn of Africa. Popular accounts of the legendary ruler Prithviraj Chauhan’s multiple pardons to the Ghurid invader, Muhammad Ghori, and its consequences are part of Indian folklore.

Later, India’s spiritual consciousness was influenced my Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts that ‘the weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong’ ~ implicitly insisting on pardon as a socio-moral tenet. Constitutionally, the President of India was bestowed pardoning powers under Article 72 which expressively states, “The President shall have the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence where the sentence is a sentence of death”.

Beyond legality, the Indian Presidential ‘power to pardon’ is about jurisprudential, societal and moral fine combing that seeks to probe the exactitude and rigour of the ‘rarest of rare cases’, which led to the said judicial conviction. Complexities of pardon are multifold, as exemplified by the publicly posited pardon by the family of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Nalini (key conspirator in his assassination who is still in jail), as it must also account for the raw sentiments of the families of the 14 policemen killed in the same attack.

The curious case of clemency to the former National Security Advisor and retired Lt Gen, Michael Flynn, has reignited the debate of political pardons ~ not for the legality of the same but owing to the possible morality and intent surrounding the action. Under the US constitution, the President’s clemency power extends to all federal criminal offenses and therefore Donald Trump’s questionable intent in earlier acts of pardoning hate provocateurs and military derelicts aside, he was within his legal remit to do so.

However, Flynn’s case has dark potentialities of a possible quid pro quo that is linked up to the current White House incumbent’s own vulnerabilities. Flynn had pleaded to his guilt about his contacts with the Russians in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential elections and was embarrassingly convicted. Trump had tried desperately and systematically to protect Flynn and have the charges against him dropped.

When Trump failed procedurally to release Flynn through others, he ultimately decided to invoke his Presidential power of pardon, weeks before he is eased out of the White House. The emerging picture suggests that Flynn had not lied to protect himself but to ostensibly protect Trump, and this act of pardon was partly a reward for his loyalty and perhaps more disturbingly, driven by murkier instincts of protecting those who still have Trump’s post-White House fate, in their hands.

Conversely others like the former attorney and one-time ‘fixer’ of Trump, Michael Cohen, who too was mired and convicted in Trump’s Russian dalliances but had thereafter stopped lying about their past to the obvious discomfiture of the President, has been denied any similar pardon. All eyes are now on Paul Manafort who had chaired Trump’s Presidential campaign in 2016 and was also indicted and convicted by the Special Counsel of Investigation.

Seemingly Manafort like Flynn, had lied and remained tightlipped to Trump’s advantage. Should he too be granted a Presidential pardon in the last days of Trump in power, the question of intent and morality surrounding political pardons will resurface. Political pardons cannot be a tool of self-protection (a la Donald Trump) or for furthering a partisan purpose ~ they should remain a progressive tool for the larger good of society, civic evolution and societal heal, depending only on the circumstances, sensitivities and implications involved.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)