News that former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin may be on his deathbed in Saudi Arabia is prompting renewed discussion about the fate of exiled tyrants around the world and whether more of them can be brought to justice for their past crimes. One Italian journalist visited several of the world's most notorious retired dictators and shares his impressions.
Prague, 7 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When he ruled Uganda in the 1970s, Idi Amin had no equal. Even on a continent known for its brutal dictators, Idi Amin -- self-proclaimed "Lord of all beasts of the earth and fishes of the seas" -- was the most feared leader in Africa.
Unpredictable, paranoid, and given to fits of rage, Amin slaughtered his people by the hundreds of thousands and turned Uganda upside-down until his ouster in 1979. Amin was also known for his twisted sense of humor. Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio, who interviewed some of the world's bloodiest retired despots for a recently-published book titled "Talk of The Devil: Encounters With Seven Dictators," spoke to RFE/RL.
"As we all remember, Idi Amin was of course a crazy African leader, who, when asked whether he was a cannibal or not, decided to answer: 'No, I don't like human flesh. I tried it once or twice but it's too salty for me,'" Orizio said.
After initially fleeing to Libya, Amin settled in Saudi Arabia, where the government offered him sanctuary, as a Muslim -- providing him and his entourage with a house and comfortable pension.
Until his recent hospitalization -- where he remains in a coma following kidney, liver, and respiratory failure -- Amin lived a quiet, middle-class existence in the port city of Jeddah, praying at the local mosque, taking his children for trips to the shopping mall, and spending his evenings strolling by the seashore.
Orizio, who visited the former Ugandan president-for-life before his illness, found an unrepentant man, still pining for the "good old days." Orizio spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from Kenya, where he currently lives, about the former despot's "retirement" years.
"He lives a very ordinary life and when I was in his house, I heard the noises of domesticity -- babies crying, food being prepared, a couple of cars parked in the courtyard -- a very normal life. But when I tried to ask him: 'Do you feel any remorse?' He said: 'No, only a little bit of nostalgia.' And when I said: 'But how do you want to be remembered?' Again, in one of his famous, paradoxical, tragic and at the same time comic answers, he said: 'Well, I want to be remembered as a great athlete," Orizio said.
Before he became a mass murderer, Idi Amin was an up-and-coming boxer. His passion for the sport never left him, even during his time as self-appointed president, as Orizio explains.
"He was a boxing champion of Uganda before becoming president. He was already very senior in the army and in the government. And actually, when he was president-for-life, he suddenly decided that he wanted to be part of the Ugandan boxing team and go to the Olympics," he said. "And obviously, everybody was so terrified of him that every match -- he easily won it. So, at the age of 40-something -- already very heavy and certainly not fit anymore -- he was fast climbing the Ugandan boxing scene and he almost managed to be selected for the Olympic team."
An adviser finally talked him out of it. Amin left the boxing ring and returned to killing his imagined political opponents.
Uganda's former leader is among the best-known of the world's deposed tyrants. But there are many others. What Orizio found, when interviewing once all-powerful leaders -- like Haiti's former "Baby Doc" Duvalier, now exiled in France; or Ethiopia's reviled Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, enjoying retirement in Zimbabwe; or Poland's General Wojciech Jaruzelski, now a pensioner in his native country -- is that, like Amin, they have no sense of remorse.
"They all feel they've been betrayed by their former political, ideological, or colonial masters. They all feel that they've been used and then they've been thrown away when we in the West reckoned that they were not useful anymore. So, they are extremely bitter and certainly they are more focused on this bitterness than on being repentant," Orizio says.
Regarding their respective periods in power, these former dictators also share a similar world view.
"Another characteristic they share is that they're modern Machiavellis. They all believe the end justifies the means and they all believe that any suffering, any victims, any blood that was a consequence of their actions -- directly or indirectly -- is something that we have to accept because the alternative would have been worse, or because it was the lesser of two evils, or simply because historical circumstances dictated it or forced them to act in a certain way," he says.
Like Amin reminiscing about his boxing days, retired dictators, Orizio says, prefer to focus on the more pleasant aspects of their past.
"These are people -- and you don't need to be an Idi Amin, you don't need to be a monster to think in this way -- these are people who are extremely skilled in detaching themselves from reality or in dividing their life in different compartments. [Amin] wants to be remembered as great athlete, as if his many years in power, the many years of suffering of millions, have not existed. It is the art of denial that they really are experts in," he says.
But if they are capable of denial, should the world allow them to forget? The indictments and trials of Yugoslavia's former leaders and war commanders at The Hague tribunal and this year's establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) have raised hopes that international justice is catching up with the world's erstwhile tyrants.
But the road is filled with pitfalls. U.S. opposition to the ICC has cast doubt on the court's ability to function fairly and impartially. And as Orizio points out, many Western countries that espouse democratic values at home, including the United States, France, and Britain, tolerated or actively supported some of the world's bloodiest dictators -- an uncomfortable fact that could politicize any international trial.
"Any foreign policy of any superpower in the history of mankind has not been based on ethical values. It has been based on Machiavellian values. It has been based on national interests first. So if in certain circumstances the national interest is to tolerate, to have a dictator in a certain geographical area of the world, then the superpower will say: 'Why not? It is in our national interest. So we're going ahead with it.' This is what France did with mad, crazy, cannibal [Jean-Bedel] Bocassa. For many, many years France was extremely happy to have Bocassa as the president and even as the 'emperor' of Central Africa," he says.
Trying former dictators in their own countries also has its own problems, as Hans Koechler, chairman of the department of philosophy at the University of Innsbruck and author of a forthcoming book on the application of international law, tells RFE/RL.
"My concerns about dealing with deposed dictators in their own countries are twofold. Depending on the situation, either the judiciary of the native country may be biased in favor of the former leader -- that is often the case when a country has lost a war and the dictator has been deposed by outside forces -- or the judiciary may be biased against. That usually happens when there is a coup in the country itself," Koechler says.
Unfortunately, says Koechler, the promise of a comfortable pension or discreet exile is sometimes the most expedient way to dislodge despots from power. Reneging on such deals, while morally justified, can create even greater humanitarian tragedies.
"The case in point is that of Liberia. Peace negotiations were underway in Ghana, involving the leaders of South Africa and Nigeria with the president of Liberia. As soon as his secret indictment was revealed, the civil war started again. So it's a very delicate balance which has to be found very often between the aim of reconciliation and peace -- that means avoiding further bloodshed -- and the aim of doing justice," Koechler says.
Given a host of imperfect solutions, both Koechler and Orizio believe that in time, the newly operational ICC may stand the best chance of applying justice on a global scale. But since its jurisdiction is not retroactive, dictators of the past can probably rest easy, with the prospect of living out their days, like Idi Amin, amid the soothing domesticity of a comfortable exile.