From Mubarak to Marcos: Where are all the despots?

Mubarak's on hunger strike, Ben Ali's in hospital. After a tumultuous spring, a new batch of deposed leaders joins the ranks of the fallen despots: both notorious and almost forgotten. Peter Stanford tracks them down
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Indy Politics

As the Arab Spring grabbed the world's attention, the faces of an unholy trinity of elderly men were always on our television screens. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak, of Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh, of Yemen, were all struggling to prop up their corrupt, authoritarian regimes in the face of popular uprisings across the Middle East. And, as we watched, one by one, they tottered and fell, not only from power, but also off the radar.

So what's their epilogue? Where do the deposed and disgraced go when power had been finally prised from their grasp? Justice demands that they should be in prison or before a court of law since all three dictators ruled by force and fear. But instead, they are currently on their backs in the sick bay.

Ben Ali, 74, is languishing in an exclusive clinic in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in a "grave state" after a stroke – though his lawyer says he's fine. Mubarak, 83, has been an in-patient at Sharm el-Sheikh Hospital since April 13 when attempts to arrest him triggered a heart attack which has, his spokesman claims, left him in a coma, though the doctor in charge says it is just a problem with an irregular heartbeat. And Saleh, 69, was filmed earlier this month in a Riyadh infirmary, swathed in bandages and seemingly unable to move his arms.

The worldly-wise will suspect their medical problems are a ploy to avoid standing in the dock. Others, though, will see the inevitable unravelling of the personality cults built up around these despots during their decades in power, where the omnipresent official portrait was doctored, their hair was ruthlessly dyed black, and anyone who dared to question their capacity to go on for 50 more glorious years was arrested. Stripped of power, they are suddenly looking their age. And some.

But is another factor in the speed of their decline the shock of exile? One of the dangers of unchecked power is that the incumbent begins to believe their own myth. These three tyrants (and their extended families) came to assume that the palaces, limousines, courtiers and credit cards with no limit and no need to pay the bill would go on indefinitely, that such trappings could be handed on like family heirlooms to their children. They might even have deluded themselves into thinking they were genuinely popular.

And then suddenly they found themselves shoved unceremoniously out of the door, usually by colleagues whose careers they have promoted. Their bank accounts are frozen, their calls to "friends" among Western leaders go unanswered, and international arrest warrants start arriving.

There used to be softer landings. Idi Amin, butcher of Uganda, spent 24 years living comfortably in exile in Jeddah after he was deposed in 1979. He was taken under the protective wing of the Saudi royal family. The United States opened its doors and medical facilities to the deposed Shah of Iran in 1980 and a fleeing Ferdinand Marcos, of the Philippines six years later.

Today, however, redundant dictators will find most border posts closed to them. The nest eggs they have stashed in Swiss banks are no longer to be relied upon, with the authorities there moving with a new-found speed to freeze accounts. And the day of reckoning doesn't even have to wait until they are toppled. The assets of Colonel Gaddafi, for example, have already been targeted, even though he clings to power, and attention is turning to the accounts of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Should mass demonstrations force him from office, there may well be no cushy retirement on the proceeds of his crimes against his own people.

What is left, in an echo of Oliver Cromwell's taunt to the defeated Irish, is the choice between "Connacht or Hell". Stay at home and face your accusers, or head for the one safe haven left, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and be one pariah clinging to another. No wonder hospital is suddenly so popular.

1. Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years and had hoped to install his younger son, Gamal, as his successor, but after 18 days of protests in Tahrir Square, at a cost of 800 lives, he threw in the presidential towel on 11 February and disappeared into his compound at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. There were bizarre rumours that he was considering exile in Tel Aviv – having been the one Arab leader willingly to make peace with Israel – but then there was the knock at the door. He was to be detained, along with his half-Welsh wife, Suzanne, and two sons, under powers that his own security services had once used to silence his opponents.

Husband and wife both suffered a spontaneous health collapse, but Suzanne Mubarak took it no further than panic attacks. Soon afterwards she regained her composure and did a deal with the authorities, handed over her luxury villa and the password for a £2m bank account in her name, and was released.

Sons Gamal and Alaa have reportedly been blaming each other for the loss of their dynastic inheritance and remain in custody. If their father's ill-health continues to prevent him standing trial, as scheduled, on 3 August for the premeditated murder of democracy protesters, they may find themselves taking the flak in his place. It is, they may care to reflect, the flip side of the power and wealth that being his sons have given them, regardless of their personal merit, over these past three decades.

2. Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali clocked up a quarter of a century in charge of Tunisia, a reign characterised by corruption on an industrial scale. It was the Trabelsis – the family of Ben Ali's second wife, Leila, 20 years his junior – who attracted most public anger for their determination to pocket a cut from everything. "The Imelda Marcos of the Arab world", as she was dubbed, Mrs Ben Ali spared herself no luxury, even having her favourite ice cream flown in from St Tropez.

She managed to scramble on to her husband's plane when he fled on 14 January in the face of a popular uprising, but her 10 siblings have been less fortunate. Many now face corruption charges. Five relatives were thwarted as they tried to escape because a Tunis Air pilot refused to take off with them on board.

Leila Ben Ali is reported to be absent from her ailing husband's bedside in Saudi Arabia, but she remains tied to him the eyes of the law. On 20 June, the couple was sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. International arrest warrants have been issued.

The 1.5 tons of gold ingots Mrs Ben Ali seized from the national bank on her way to the airport should keep her solvent, especially with the price of gold soaring. Her daughter, Nesrine, and her playboy husband Sakher, were less clear-sighted as their corrupt world imploded. They ran away to a suite of rooms at Disneyland Paris; the French authorities ordered them out of the country.

3. Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled Yemen since 1978. When the combination of poverty, tribalism, corruption and repression unleashed a wave of popular unrest, he clung tenaciously to power for the first five months of this year. However, an attack on the mosque in his presidential compound killed seven and left him so burnt and wounded that on 4 June he had to go to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

He's still promising to be back, but his hosts are unlikely to let this happen. He took 35 close relatives with him but his eldest son and anointed heir, Ahmed, still leads the elite Republican Guard, and his General People's Congress party remains in power. Three nephews have stayed in senior military positions and his brother is in charge of the air force. Saleh is thought to be negotiating an immunity from prosecution deal, especially after his forces shot dead 18 rioters in March, in return for going into exile, but the dynastic ambitions that led him to spend £100m on a mosque named after him in the capital Sana'a remain alive.

4. Pervez Musharraf

Pervez Musharraf seized power in Pakistan in 1997 in a military coup against the elected government. He was forced into exile in August 2008 by the threat of impeachment. He left the country to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca but has not returned. He has settled in London despite the Pakistani government issuing an arrest warrant for him in connection with the murder of Benazir Bhutto in 2008.

He regularly tours the USA, Europe and the Middle East giving lectures at $100,000 a throw on the personal price he has paid for his support for George Bush's war on terror. Believing that his country still needs him, General Musharraf told Piers Morgan in a television interview that he will return to Pakistan on 23 March 2012, in time to contest the next presidential election. The omens for such a return, as the example of his long-time adversary Benazir Bhutto demonstrates, are not good.

5. Jean-Claude Duvalier

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier succeeded his tyrant father, "Papa Doc" in 1971 as leader of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. His £2m 1980 wedding was sponsored by the state.

Overthrown by a popular revolt in 1986, he took refuge in France – though he was never formally granted political asylum – and lived in splendour in a villa outside Cannes. During a police raid aimed at recovering looted assets from Haiti, officers found Mrs Duvalier flushing a notebook down the toilet with details of her recent spending, including £7,500 for two children's horse saddles from Hermes. When the couple divorced in 1993, his ex-wife left him penniless, Baby Doc claimed.

In January 2011, he made a surprise return home, announcing to the modest crowds that greeted him: "I'm not here for politics. I'm here for the reconstruction of Haiti." What were his real motives? One suggestion is that his legal attempt to reclaim £2.5m in frozen assets, allegedly stolen from Haiti, required him to prove he was no longer regarded as a criminal in his homeland. He had planned to slip in and out of the country unchallenged to prove a point. But it all went wrong. He was arrested and is now awaiting trial on corruption charges.

6. Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor, a protégé of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, was president of Liberia from 1997 until 2003. Not content with plunging his own country into a bloody civil war, he then intervened in a conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone where his involvement in gun-running, diamond smuggling, and forced recruitment of child soldiers led to him being indicted for war crimes by the United Nations. Forced into exile in Nigeria, he lived comfortably in a beachside villa. His wife, Jewel, was even elected to the Liberian Senate in 2005.

But he was sent home in 2006, despite his best attempts to escape justice, and handed over to UN officials. His trial in The Hague in the Special Court on Sierra Leone began in 2007 and has been long and drawn-out, with appearances by Mia Farrow and Naomi Campbell in relation to a gift of uncut diamonds he allegedly made to the supermodel. A verdict is still pending, but the UN hopes that the example of Taylor's fate in exile will serve to deter other tyrants who think they can get away with murder, even when ousted from office.

7. Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos, the 82-year-old former First Lady of the Philippines, is both the ultimate reproach to any fleeing tyrant, and a source of hope. When the ex-beauty queen accompanied her husband, Ferdinand, into exile in Hawaii, the 3,000 pairs of shoes and mountains of expensive kitsch she left behind in their palaces became an enduring symbol of their regime's deep-rooted corruption.

Yet, since her husband's death in 1989, she has successfully lived down her intimate involvement in a repressive regime. She was acquitted by a US court of racketeering and fraud in 1990, returned home in 1991, has twice polled respectably when running for president, and is an elected member of the National Congress.

Gaddafi: he can run, but he can't hide

Five months since Nato's bombing operation against Colonel Gaddafi's Libyan regime began, there's still confusion about what will happen to the dictator if and when he is finally deposed or voluntarily relinquishes power. With the conflict at a standstill, the United States, Britain and France have hinted that they are flexible on his future and that a form of internal exile may be possible.

However, an offer from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebels' National Transitional Council, for the dictator to live out his days in internal exile, seems to have expired. And yesterday, the International Criminal Court came out to condemn any move that would see the dictator escape justice at the Hague.

The only remaining option for the Libyan leader would be exile abroad, but the usual choice of Saudi Arabia is most likely unavailable. In 2004 he was accused by the Saudi regime of approving a plan to assassinate the country's ruler and is not thought to be welcome in the kingdom. Meanwhile exile in another African country such as Ghana, Chad or Burkina Faso or with ally Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is now thought unlikely. Gaddafi's future, like that of Libya, remains uncertain.