Show Trial

Moscow trials

show trial is a public trial in which the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The actual trial has as its only goal the presentation of both the accusation and the verdict to the public so they will serve as both an impressive example and a warning to other would-be dissidents or transgressors.

Show trials tend to be retributive rather than corrective and they are also conducted for propagandistic purposes. When aimed at individuals on the basis of protected classes or characteristics, such trials are examples of political persecution. The term was first recorded in 1928.

Following the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong began a massive socioeconomic and political campaign called the Great Leap Forward, which lasted from1958 to 1961. During this time, many thousands of people classified as elements of the bourgeoisie-like wealthy landlords were rounded up and given show trials, with some being sentenced to death. Between one and two million landlords were executed as counterrevolutionaries in Communist China.

After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, show trials were given to ‘rioters and counter-revolutionaries’ involved in the protests and the subsequent military massacre. Chinese courts frequently hand down guilty verdicts without deliberation. After a drop in acquittal rates in the 2000s, the Chinese judicial system reached a 99.9 percent conviction rate in the 2010s. In a report to the National People’s Congress, Supreme People’s Court Justice Zhou Qiang said ‘The rulings in some cases were not fair… which harmed the interests of the litigants and undermined the credibility of the law.’

Judiciary in countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is completely dependent on the wishes and wants of the governing regimes. During their show trials, Human rights activists and opposition figures are routinely given harsh verdicts in predetermined rulings by the kangaroo courts.

After the failed coup attempt in 2016, the government of Turkey blamed the Gülen movement for the coup and authorities have arrested thousands of soldiers and judges. This was followed by the dismissal, detention, or suspension of over 160,000 officials.

As early as 1922, Russian revolutionary Lenin advocated staging several ‘model trials’ in Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine. Show trials became common during Joseph Stalin’s political repressions, such as the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge period (1937–38). Such trials paralleled the institution of self-criticism within Communist Party cadres and Soviet society. The Soviet authorities staged the actual trials meticulously. If defendants refused to ‘cooperate’—i.e., to admit guilt for their alleged and mostly fabricated crimes—they did not go on public trial, but suffered execution nonetheless. This happened, for example during the prosecution of the so-called Labour Peasant Party [ru], a ‘party’ invented in the late 1920s by the OGPU, which, in particular, assigned the notable economist Alexander Chayanov (1888–1937, arrested in 1930) to it.

Following some dissent within ruling communist parties throughout the Eastern Bloc, especially after the 1948 Tito–Stalin split, several party purges occurred, with several hundred thousand members purged in several countries. In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent communists were purged, with some subjected to public show trials.These were more likely to be instigated, and sometimes orchestrated, by the Kremlin or even Stalin himself, as he had done in the earlier Moscow Trials.

Such high-ranking party show trials included those of Koçi Xoxe in Albania and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, who were purged and arrested. After Kostov was executed, Bulgarian leaders sent Stalin a telegram thanking him for the help. In Romania, Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca were arrested, with Pătrășcanu being executed. The Soviets generally directed show trial methods throughout the Eastern Bloc, with a procedure in which confessions and evidence from leading witnesses could be extracted by any means, including threatening to torture the witnesses’ wives and children. The higher-ranking the party member, generally the more harsh the torture that was inflicted upon him.

For the show trial of Hungarian Interior Minister János Kádár, who one year earlier had attempted to force a confession of Rajk in his show trial, regarding ‘Vladimir’ the questioner of Kádár: ‘Vladimir had but one argument: blows. They had begun to beat Kádár. They had smeared his body with mercury to prevent his pores from breathing. He had been writhing on the floor when a newcomer had arrived. The newcomer was Vladimir’s father, Mihály Farkas. Kádár was raised from the ground. Vladimir stepped close. Two henchmen pried Kádár’s teeth apart, and the colonel, negligently, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, urinated into his mouth.’

The evidence was often not just non-existent but absurd, with Hungarian George Paloczi-Horváth’s party interrogators claiming ‘We knew all the time—we have it here in writing—that you met professor Szentgyörgyi not in Istanbul, but in Constantinople.’ In another case, the Hungarian ÁVH secret police also condemned another party member as a Nazi accomplice with a document that had been previously displayed in a glass cabinet at the Institute of the Working Class Movement as an example of a Gestapo forgery. The trials themselves were ‘shows,’ with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance. In the Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked.

As of 2022, court cases in Belarus are often scheduled ten minutes apart from one another and can conclude in as little three minutes, and have been criticized for being ‘not a court.’ Consistently from 2016 through 2020, trials resulting in a guilty verdict occurred at a frequency of 99.7% and 99.8%.

Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany established a large number of Sondergerichte (‘special courts’) that were frequently used to prosecute those hostile to the regime. The People’s Court was a kangaroo court established in 1934 to handle political crimes after several of the defendants at the Reichstag fire Trial were acquitted. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 12,000 Germans were killed on the orders of the ‘special courts’ set up by the Nazi regime.

The trial of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was marred by allegations of lack of impartiality and political bias due to proximity of the trial and Lula’s arrest to the 2018 Brazilian general election. Federal judge Sergio Moro, who would later become minister of justice in during the early stage of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency, was frequently accused of speeding up corruption charges against Lula in a clear attempt at preventing Lula from running to office again and harm public trust on the Workers’ Party. In early 2019, news website ‘The Intercept’ published leaked messages from Telegram that confirmed the political bias allegations and Moro’s speeding up of charges against Lula with the clear intent at preventing him from running for office in 2018. In 2019 Lula was released from prison after a Supreme Federal Court ruling that declared that defendants could only be arrested after all appeals to higher courts were exhausted. In 2021 Lula was acquitted of most charges after Supreme Federal Court judges confirmed that Lula’s trial was unfair and politically biased.

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