Fallible Leaders: 5 Former Presidents With Criminal Convictions

News of former American president Donald Trump becoming a convicted felon is making waves—but he’s not the first world leader to face criminal charges. 

Donald Trump has recently achieved a new milestone in U.S. history as the first of the country’s presidents to ever face criminal charges. Yet he’s not the first president who’s a convicted felon. Indeed, with great power comes the temptation of abusing it—for those in such positions, more so than the average person. While people generally think that those at the top of the hierarchy can escape justice by virtue of their positions, Trump and all those who came before him are proof that no one is above the law. On that note, here are five former presidents who show that crime doesn’t pay:

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Donald Trump (U.S.)

As mentioned, Trump gained international attention after his recent indictment. The court found the former president guilty of 34 felonies, mostly for the falsification of business records in the first degree, which is a felony in his home city of New York, according to Stefan Becket of CBS News

Donald Trump/Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
Donald Trump/Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

The particular incident that brought everything to public attention is the infamous  $130,000 hush-money payment he made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. There’s also a long list of sexual assault accusations to Trump’s name, including a troubling incident involving a woman named E. Jean Carroll. 

That said Trump’s team continues to fight against the charges, and he is still running in the 2024 presidential race. As the Holly Honderich of the BBC reports, all former presidents are also entitled to protection from the Secret Service. As such, if he does end up behind bars, he will still have certain perks. Still, his current status may change things in the upcoming election, and still shows that even leaders can’t escape justice. 

Nicolas Sarkozy (France)

Nicolas Sarkozy has gained infamy in France’s political history, as courts found the former president (who served from 2007 to 2012) guilty of corruption. Among these cases of corruption was hiding illegal overspending for his 2012 campaign, as Le Monde reports. At the time, he had spent 43 million euros for his campaign, almost twice the limit of  22.5 million euros. 

Nicolas Sarkozy/Photo by European People's Party via Wikimedia Commons
Nicolas Sarkozy/Photo by European People’s Party via Wikimedia Commons

In 2021, he received a one-year prison sentence for this, and also bribery and influence-peddling. This included his attempted bribing of a judge in 2014, where he promised a better job in return for information regarding another case concerning him, according to the BBC. 

Lee Myung-bak (South Korea)

Lee Myung-bak, the former president of South Korea who served from 2008 to 2013, was arrested for bribery and embezzlement charges in 2018, as Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times, reports. A Seoul district court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for getting around  $7.5 million worth of bribes. 

Lee Myung-bak/Photo by Kinocine via Wikimedia Commons
Lee Myung-bak/Photo by Kinocine via Wikimedia Commons

Lee is not the first president of the country to serve jail time, however, as even his successor Park Geun-hye received a sentence of 24 years for bribery and coercion, as the BBC reports. Yet many remember him as being the first of the country’s presidents with a business background, having been the CEO of 10 companies under the Hyundai group, as AP News writes. 

Altogether, Lee is the fourth former president to serve jail time, as dictator-presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo received death sentences and 22 years in prison for their coup d’etat in 1979

Jacob Zuma (South Africa)

Jacob Zuma served as the president of South Africa from 2008 to 2018, and received charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering, and money-laundering in 2021, according to Mogomotsi Magome and Gerald Imray of AP News. In the same year, he received a 15-month prison sentence for failing to appear at an inquiry regarding his corruption charges, add Zahid Mahmood and Christian Edwards of CNN

Jacob Zuma/Photo by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons
Jacob Zuma/Photo by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons

Zuma’s supporters were not particularly happy about the arrest, sparking a series of violent protests that killed hundreds of people. There has been a lot of back and forth regarding Zuma’s sentence, as he received medical parole (for poor health) only to be sent back to prison, then released again as the beneficiary of a program that prevents overcrowding in jails in 2023, as John Eligon reports for The New York Times. The former president’s opponents argue that the timing is “suspicious.”

While it’s not a particularly just situation, South Africa’s top court has still banned Zuma from running for parliament in the country’s May 2024 general election, according to Rafieka Williams & Farouk Chothia of BBC

Alberto Fujimori (Peru)

Former president of Peru Alberto Fujimori is perhaps one of the country’s most infamous leaders, as he committed a series of human rights abuses during his time as president from 1990 to 2000. Namely the two massacries that military death squads carried out against communist guerrillas, which killed 25 people, report Teresa Cespedes and Terry Wade of Reuters. He received a 25-year prison sentence for his crimes in 2007, yet left prison in 2023 after the country’s highest court granted him humanitarian pardon. 

Alberto Fujimori in 1991/Photo by the European Union via Wikimedia Commons
Alberto Fujimori in 1991/Photo by the European Union via Wikimedia Commons

Dan Collyns of The Guardian describes his presidency as a “divisive” one, as supporters praise his autocratic leadership and strongman personality for putting the country’s economy back on track. Yet his leadership also brought in many human rights abuses, with widespread cases of bribery and corruption as well. The BBC reports that throughout his time as president, he had his forces kill an estimated 69,000 people. 

Banner photo by Shaleah Craighead via Wikimedia Commons.

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