USA vs. Finland – Leave Pardons to the Courts

The word “Amnesty” has often been seen in the press these last few weeks both here in Finland and of course in the USA… but its use shows up clear differences between the two countries.

The Finnish President has the right to grant an amnesty upon application by a convicted criminal. Finnish Presidents have differed in the way they grant these amnesties, furthermore readers can see that this has been used less and less in recent years:

The current Finnish president did not grant any amnesties this year and he stated that he would only grant one if the prisoner’s situation changed significantly for the worse, and none of the applicants fulfilled this criteria this year. Before an amnesty is granted the president normally confers with the Supreme Court and other legal advisors, but he is not obliged to follow their advice.

The present Finnish president has said that he would prefer that this power to grant amnesty should be removed letting the courts to make such decisions.      

Things are quite different in the United States under Trump who appears to be granting amnesties to people who have committed wrongdoings that he regards to be acceptable behaviour, even when witnesses have seen atrocities and crimes against humanity being committed. The New York Times (NYT) has recently run a detailed story with videos of the actions of a marine officer called Edward Gallagher who was deployed to Iraq attached to a Marine infantry unit.

The NYT reported in December this year that SEALs from Gallagher’s platoon in Mosul in 2017 told military officials that they saw him stab and kill a wounded ISIS captive. Several SEALs were providing medical aid to the fighter, when Gallagher took out a handmade hunting knife and stabbed the captive, a teenager, several times in the neck and torso. He was also accused of firing a sniper rifle at civilians, striking a girl wearing a flower-print hijab as she walked along a riverbank and an old man carrying a water jug. Several SEALs broke the group’s code of silence and testified against Chief Gallagher in a military trial.

Trump later stopped the man being dismissed from the Marines using his presidential prerogative. Trump’s actions have been described by Douglas Porch, professor emeritus and former chair of the department of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, as “a first step in politicising the military.”

But even worse is that Trump believes that American presidents are above the law. He has tweeted that he may be able to give himself an amnesty! The Atlantic (December 2018) reported in that President Donald Trump tweeted, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” In 2018, of course, scholars’ views don’t mean much. The current constitutional rule is Donald Trump can do anything he can get away with. The president operates by hotel-burglar logic: If people don’t want to be robbed, they ought to lock their doors; if the Founders didn’t want Trump to do something, it’s their own fault for not writing “the president can’t do this.”

Many articles in the US media have also been written on how US state governors have been using pardons to support their re-election. Fewer other articles reflect positively on these decisions where it is reported that pardons disproportionately benefited white offenders, or a pardon was granted to a murder criminal after his family made a big donation to the governor’s election campaign fund, or the pardoned murder criminal was a close family friend, etc…

When a US president pardons a person who has committed a serious crime there must be known changed circumstances that justify such actions. A pardon granted without proper justification   puts the president on par with any other tinpot despot, and we know how despots behave because we have no lack of practicing candidates today like Kim, Putin, Johnson, Orbán, Erdoğan, etc., to name just a few.

Despots are easily recognised:

  1. A despot orders what others are allowed to do and say, without any limits on what the despot can do and say himself…
  2. … he tells lies when he sees that the truth is inconvenient, or is in conflict with his own interests…
  3. … and a despot mixes up things like the Rule of Law which says that the government, the legislature and the judiciary should be kept separate. 

Finns should be thankful that we have an honest president – they appear to be a rare commodity these days.

Photo: UN 1950

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