Some ended up in prison, others were butchered at the hands of their own people. A lucky few lived out their days in comfortable exile or in positions of privilege in the lands they ruled.
India’s independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi said dictators “can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.”
That hasn’t always proven true. Russia’s Josef Stalin, North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, China’s Mao Zedong, Spain’s Francisco Franco, Albania’s Enver Hoxha and Syria’s Hafez Assad all died in power. Augusto Pinochet of Chile arranged a comfortable retirement before handing over power.
The global record of bringing tyrants to justice has been mixed.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stood before an international tribunal to answer for his regime, but he died before a verdict could be rendered.
Liberia’s Charles Taylor has been indicted for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone and awaits trial.
Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega is serving a 40-year term in a federal prison in Miami for racketeering, drug trafficking and money-laundering after U.S. troops entered his country and arrested him in 1989.
But history’s master tyrant, Adolf Hitler, escaped retribution by committing suicide in Berlin before Soviet troops could capture him in 1945.
Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians, died in the jungle in 1998 as remnants of his vanquished movement were preparing to hand him over to an international court.
For dictators, great power entails great risk. The price for years spent firmly in the saddle can be high.
For nearly 25 years, Nicolae Ceausescu wielded vast powers as the Communist boss of Romania, even defying the Kremlin, which tolerated him because of his firm hold over his people. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 after revolutionaries toppled his regime.
That seemed like a merciful end compared with that of Samuel Doe, the shy, soft-spoken master sergeant who overthrew Liberian President William Tobert in 1980.
Power and corruption soon got the best of him and after 10 years of dictatorial rule, Doe was himself overthrown – tortured, mutilated and brutally slain.
More fortunate are those who can call on a foreign leader for a safe haven once their regime is on the rocks.
Idi Amin, who as president of Uganda ordered the massacre of thousands of his countrymen and impoverished his people, managed to get away to Libya after neighboring Tanzania overthrown his regime in 1979. Amin later settled in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.
Ethiopia’s Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam escaped to Zimbabwe in 1991 as rebels led by ethnic minority Tigreans closed in on his capital, ending a 17-year dictatorship notorious for its bloody purges.
Mengistu has a luxury villa, bodyguards and a pension – payback for having provided Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe with arms, money and training facilities during the 1972-80 war to end white rule in former Rhodesia.
Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti used his family’s longtime ties to France to escape retribution when the Haitian military ousted his regime in 1986.
“Baby Doc” was named president for life at age 19 following the 1971 death of his father, Francois, “Papa Doc,” who had ruled with the help of the notorious paramilitary Tonton Macoutes.
Despite promises to liberalize, the younger Duvalier muzzled the press, wrecked the economy and ordered the torture and killing of hundreds of political prisoners, finally provoking mass protests and a coup that chased him from the country.