The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Rarely has the old expression had as much global echo as it does this morning. Over the past 48 hours, no fewer than three former heads of state, in three different continents, have had to face judges over accusations of corruption.

In Brazil, South America's biggest country, there is no bigger name in politics than Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — better known as Lula. But the former president now has until this afternoon to turn himself in so he can begin serving a jail sentence of 12 years and one month.

The 72-year-old claims the charges are politically motivated and designed to prevent him from running for president in the next election, in October. The best defense, as another old saying goes, is always a good offense. And baffling as it might seem from abroad, given his long list of legal problems, Lula remains highly popular in Brazil: He has been leading in the polls ahead of the election so far, owing to a form of nostalgia for better times in a recession and crisis-hit Brazil, and to his — largely circumstantial, if not mythical — record on poverty.

Over the past 48 hours, no fewer than three former heads of state have had to face judges.

While it remains unclear whether Lula will hand himself over to the authorities, or push ahead with his bid to win a third term at the helm (and thus escape jail), many voices in Brazil, including the newspaper O Globo, are praising the judicial system for showing that "justice applies to everybody" and that the country's institutions are "strong." Lula's sentencing, the newspaper's editorial reads, "is the acme of an ethical cleaning-up process" that's still ongoing via the Car Wash operation.

Halfway across the world, in South Korea, another political bigwig, former president Park Geun-hye, was sentenced this morning to 24 years in prison and fined $16.9 million. A year ago, Park was the country's first democratically elected leader to be impeached. Like Lula, she denied wrongdoing and accused the judges of being biased against her. And just like in Brazil, corruption in South Korea goes well beyond these mediatized and recent cases.

Former South Koren President Park Geun-hye — Photo: KOREA.net

As The Economist notes, "corruption has long been a feature rather than a bug in South Korean politics." Indeed, "all four of South Korea's living ex-presidents have now either been convicted of corruption offences, or are in jail being tried or investigated for such crimes [...] and three deceased presidents were also touched by corruption scandals."

For those keeping score, that's seven in a row for South Korea leaders — though current President Moon Jae-in looks like he's trying to put an end to this shameful tradition, having recently made anti-corruption a priority of his new government.

In South Africa, in the meantime, prosecutors this morning ruled that former president Jacob Zuma, who was forced to step down a month ago, will stand trial later this year on 16 different charges, including fraud, corruption and racketeering. Speaking to his supporters outside the court in the eastern coastal city of Durban, Zuma defended himself by — you guessed it — saying the charges were politically motivated. "I am being targeted because of my stand on radical economic transformation," news portal IOL quotes him as saying.

It also stands to reason that justice systems are susceptible to political persuasion.

Go back a few weeks, and it was Nicolas Sarkozy's turn to be charged with corruption and illegal campaign financing. The former French president is accused of taking public funds from former Libyan strongman Gaddafi to finance his 2007 election campaign. Same pattern here as elsewhere: Sarkozy accuses his accusers of being politically biased and has repeatedly described the allegations against him as a "conspiracy."

Could it really be that all of these cases are just aimed at dragging people's names through the mud? Conspiracies meant to derail the still powerful political figures from running in elections they might win? Or is Lord Acton's famous assertion that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" as true now as it was when he first penned it, in the late 19th century?

The answer, as is so often the case, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, where there's smoke there tends to be fire, as yet another saying goes. But it also stands to reason that justice systems are susceptible to political persuasion, especially when judging prominent people. As much as we pretend otherwise, legal systems are only human after all.

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