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4 world leaders who are convicted criminals

Silvio Berlusconi
Image: Frederic Legrand - COMEO /

When you imagine world leaders in the dock, you might immediately think of war crimes and other grandiose atrocities. But many presidents and prime ministers have been prosecuted for rather more simple reasons, as this list demonstrates.

1. Silvio Berlusconi

For decades, Silvio Berlusconi cut a flamboyant and controversial figure on the world stage. The former cruise ship singer had made the unlikely transition to billionaire media mogul before serving multiple terms as Italian prime minister.

He was embroiled in legal tussles throughout much of his populist political career and was even found guilty of paying for sex with a nightclub dancer under the age of 18. That shocking conviction was eventually overturned on appeal.

However, in October 2012, he was handed a four-year prison sentence (reduced to one year due to prison overcrowding) for tax-related issues. The case related to his media career, and accusations that he’d purchased US film rights at inflated prices through offshore companies as part of a tax evasion scheme.

Due to his advanced age – being in his late 70s at the time – Berlusconi was allowed to serve his time in the form of community service. Thus, Italy was treated to the surreal sight of their grandstanding, billionaire, former leader doing menial work at a care home for dementia patients.

2. Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has had one of the most tumultuous political careers of modern times. The son of a business magnate and one of the country’s wealthiest men, he first served as prime minister back in the early 90s. His second tenure came to a dramatic end in 1999, when he was toppled by a military coup.

The aftermath of this bloodless revolution saw Sharif put on trial on several charges, including kidnapping and hijacking, though this was roundly criticised as a show trial by outside observers. Initially imprisoned, Sharif was later allowed to go into exile, and it seemed like his political future had been extinguished.

But Sharif mounted an astonishing comeback, returning to his native country and winning a third term as prime minister in 2013. Things came permanently unstuck a few years later with the sensational leak of the Panama Papers. This trove of documents revealed the secret financial dealings of wealthy and influential figures around the world.

The papers linked Sharif’s family to several shady offshore companies, leading to him being tried for corruption. In 2018, he was handed 10-year and seven-year sentences for illicit transactions, some relating to properties his family owned in London.

However, there was to be another twist in the tale when Sharif was granted bail to receive medical treatment in the UK. Having managed to get out of Pakistan, Sharif has steadfastly refused to return to complete his sentence. He’s since been declared an ‘absconder’ by the Pakistan government.

3. Nicolas Sarkozy

French president Nicolas Sarkozy weathered much criticism during his 2007-2012 tenure, partly because of his conservative policies, and partly because of his flashy style. Critics disparagingly dubbed the president, who married singer and supermodel Carla Bruni while in office, as a ‘bling-bling’ figure. In fact, his ‘bling-bling’ was one of the reasons he eventually found himself in legal hot water, many years after his time as president.

In 2021, Sarkozy was put on trial, accused of violating France’s strict rules on campaign spending during his unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2012. Prosecutors accused him of flagrantly splurging tens of millions beyond the legal limit to put on giant, pop concert-style rallies. The former president was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for this infraction.

That same year, he also received a three-year suspended sentence for corruption. Prosecutors alleged Sarkozy had attempted to bribe a prominent magistrate in order to gain inside information on another investigation into potentially illicit political donations. The plan only came to light because police had been wiretapping Sarkozy as part of another, unrelated investigation.

Despite the serious-sounding sentences, appeals in both of these cases are ongoing and he will likely never see the inside of a cell.

4. Chen Shui-bian

Former lawyer Chen Shui-bian became the president of Taiwan in 2000. As the first leader from the centre-left Democratic Progressive Party, his ascent ended more than a half-century of rule by the authoritarian Kuomintang party. His first term saw him embroiled in complex wrangles with the Kuomintang, and he miraculously survived an assassination attempt the day before being re-elected in 2004 (he was shot in the stomach).

However, his second term saw his approval rating plummet amid allegations of corruption. In November 2006, charges were filed against his wife over alleged misuse of state funds, with prosecutors saying they could also have indicted Chen Shui-bian himself if he wasn’t protected by presidential immunity.

The president vigorously denied the accusations on television, but he eventually stepped down after an election loss in 2008. Stripped of his immunity, he was finally able to be tried on charges including embezzlement and money laundering. In September 2009, he and his wife were handed life sentences, though these were reduced to 20 years on appeal.

In 2013, he attempted to kill himself in his prison bathroom, but his situation became markedly less grave in 2015 when he was released on bail on medical grounds. He’s since launched his own radio talk show, which focuses not on politics but on “life and inspiring stories”.