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Death penalty for Egypt's Mubarak: How will that play with the tin-pot despot set?

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Khalil Hamra/AP

(Read caption) Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters demonstrate outside a courtroom in Cairo, Thursday. The prosecutor in the Mubarak trial demanded the death penalty on Thursday for the ousted Egyptian leader on charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during last year's uprising against his rule.

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Egypt’s long-ruling former President Hosni Mubarak may face the death penalty if found guilty in his ongoing trial in Cairo. Mr. Mubarak is accused of ordering the killing of protesters during the Tahrir Square demonstrations that ultimately led to the downfall of his government in February.

Sending Mubarak to the gallows may feel like a good signal to send to strong-man leaders – that their misdeeds in office will be judged, and judged harshly, in courts of law.

But history shows that hard sentencing for bad leaders can sometimes backfire.

For every leader who steps down peacefully after a few terms in office on the African continent, there are many others who take the president-for-life package. Some, especially those who rose to power by leading armed independence movements, remember the brutal death of late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, and plan to stay in power as a way to stay alive. Others look at the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and the expected trial of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo on human rights charges at The Hague, and worry that they too could face a lifetime in prison.

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