A trial that addresses POLITICAL QUESTIONS, involves political officials, or serves political agendas. In certain circumstances the term is used in a pejorative sense to criticize a particular trial or proceeding as unfair or unjust.
Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish political trials from ordinary legal proceedings, political trials generally fall into one of four categories. The most familiar type of political trial is a partisan trial, which consists of criminal legal proceedings instituted by the government to solidify its power, extinguish its opposition, or flex its muscle. Such political trials, while taking place in a courtroom, have little to do with justice. Instead, partisan trials serve to promote the ideology of those holding the reins of power.
In many countries partisan trials are easy to identify because the prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys are chosen by the government based on their allegiance to the regime's political philosophy. In other countries the government may exert subtle pressure upon judges and
Andrew Hamilton (standing, arm extended) defends New York printer and journalist John Peter Zenger in his 1735 political trial on charges of seditious libel.
attorneys to influence the outcome of a case. In either situation such proceedings rarely produce a result that is fair or impartial. Some of the most notorious partisan trials took place in ADOLF HITLER's Germany and JOSEPH STALIN's Soviet Union where many of the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys served as instruments of terror and propaganda for their totalitarian leaders.
A second familiar type of political trial involves the prosecution of religious and political dissenters. Since time immemorial, governments have been confronted by persons who disobey the law for reasons of conscience. Such disobedience, which can take the form of active or passive resistance, presents a dilemma for most governments.
On the one hand, governments must prosecute persons who disobey the law to maintain the integrity of the legal system. Yet if the prosecution takes place in a public forum, a political or religious dissenter is likely to question the propriety of a particular law or policy and challenge the legitimacy or competency of the existing government. On the other hand, if the government covertly silences a dissenter in private, the legal system exposes itself...