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WCED Lecture. Undue Process: Persecution and Punishment in Autocratic Courts

Fiona Shen-Bayh, assistant professor of government and data science, College of William & Mary
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
4:00-5:30 PM
One of the most striking trends of modern authoritarianism is the extent to which power has been consolidated through law. In this seemingly legalistic world order, courts have unsurprisingly emerged as a prominent forum to adjudicate conflict and contest power. When courts become sites of autocratic contestation, the proceedings which ensue often bear little resemblance to the conduct of courts in functioning democracies. This is especially true wherever autocrats invoke judicial procedures for repressive ends, a practice sometimes referred to as "persecution through prosecution.” Yet, the judicial dimensions of repression are largely underappreciated despite the far-reaching implications of using law and courts to facilitate oppressive outcomes. In this talk, Shen-Bayh will address questions focused directly on the role that courts play in strategies of autocratic survival: why do autocrats bother holding a political trial when the outcomes are assumed to be known from the start? What are the goals of going to court and by what mechanisms are these goals achieved? Do autocrats face risks by going to court, and if so, how do they ensure that proceedings go as planned? To answer these questions, she develops a theoretical framework that centers around the disciplinary dimensions of autocracy, or how the process of punishment can be institutionalized in autocratic courts. She evaluates her theory in the context of postcolonial autocratic regimes across sub Saharan African cases.

Fiona Shen-Bayh is an assistant professor of government and data science at the College of William & Mary and an affiliated researcher at the University of Bergen. She earned her PhD and MA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley and her BA in economics from Vassar College. From 2018-19, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the role that law and courts play in defending and upholding autocratic rule, and has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and published in World Politics. Her current book project examines why autocrats use courts to repress and the ramifications of such strategies on autocratic survival in the Global South. Focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, her work draws on a mixed-methods approach that combines qualitative and quantitative analyses and leverages a variety of data science tools.

Registration is required for this Zoom webinar at

If there is anything we can do to make this event accessible to you, please contact us at Please be aware that advance notice is necessary as some accommodations may require more time for the university to arrange.
Building: Off Campus Location
Location: Virtual
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: African Studies, Autocracy, Democracy, International, Law
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, International Institute, African Studies Center

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