Hunter Biden

Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden, walks to a waiting SUV after arriving at Fort McNair in Washington, DC, July 4, 2023. US President Joe Biden's son Hunter was indicted on September 14, 2023, for illegally buying a gun five years ago at a time when he admits he was using drugs heavily. 

| Saul Loeb | AFP

Children of presidents as criminal defendants in court

The United States continues to amaze many who envy its laws and democracy as a model for the world. In the past few months, former President Donald Trump was charged in four different courts for several offences, ranging from taxation to conspiracies to subvert the democracy of the country.

But a new standard was set this week when for the first time, the child of a sitting president was charged with an offence while his parent is in office serving as president. President Joe Biden’s son — Hunter Biden — was this week charged with some offences relating to information he gave while applying for a gun. The charges claim that he unlawfully lied in the firearms application form about his use of drugs and thereby got a gun, which he would otherwise not have been eligible to obtain.

 While a claim of witch-hunt has been made in the case of Mr Trump’s charges on the supposed ground that the regime is persecuting him and using criminal charges against him to derail his campaigns ahead of next presidential elections, in the case of the charges against Hunter Biden, no political argument would stick. The Department of justice that charged him is run by an Attorney General appointed by his father.

This for many countries would test the depth and strength of the democracy of a country for a former president to be changed and even more for the child of a sitting president to be charged while his father is still the head of state. But as many may state, this shows that the country in which such occurrence take place is as true to democracy and republican as can be.

Trump charged with attempt to overturn Biden's 2020 win

The only other instance that I may think of in similar terms, is the case of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi whose son Sanjay Gandhi was charged with the offence of destroying a film that carried a message satirical of his involvement in corrupt deals while his mother had been prime minister for the first time. However, the prosecution was commenced and a conviction obtained while Mr Gandhi had been voted out of power. After his mother was re-elected and assumed power as prime minister in 1980, Sanjay’s appeal to the Supreme Court succeeded and his was acquitted of the charges. It is said that the conviction was not strongly supported at the Supreme Court by a new prosecutor who had been appointed by the Indira Gandhi.

India also has another example of a prime minister whose child faced allegations.

Prime Minister Morori Desai faced uproar and challenge to his leadership when allegations arose that his son, Kanti Desai, had used his father’s name to collect money for his father’s party. This time, no charges were brought against the child but it cost the father a lot of political capital.

Narasimha Rao, who was India’s prime minister between 1990 and 1996 also faced charges that his son Prabakhar was involved in a fertiliser supplies scandal. However, charges were brought against the Son’s associates and two relatives of the prime minister, but the son escaped somehow although he had originally been cited in a show cause demand as one of the suspects in the scandal.

But children of politicians do found themselves facing justice even outside the countries in which they could be totally immuned from prosecution. Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark was in 2004 tried and convicted in a South African court for involvement in an attempted coup in another country. It was alleged that while living in South Africa long after his mother had ceased being prime minister, Mark was charged for financing mercenaries in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. He was given a four-year suspended sentence and a fine for the involvement.

But in Africa, the presidents and their children may only face charges in a court of law following the ouster of their parent. One such example is in Egypt. Gamal and Alla Mubarak, sons of former president Hosni Mubarak were accused, upon the overthrow of their father of having embezzled public funds while their father was president. They were convicted and sentenced to serve three years in jail.

These are but examples that in a democracy no one ought to be above the law, even the children of the heads of government. In functional democracies, they display the democratic ideals at its best: The principle of separation of powers and independence of the Judiciary from the other arms of government.

 Put differently, the principle is that in a constitutional democracy no one is ever so high as to be beyond the reach of the law. It is the responsibility of all to uphold the rule of law for the common good of the society.

The writer is Head of Legal at Nation Media Group Plc