On Tuesday, the Egyptian ex-president Hosni Mubarak who has been confined to a luxury villa in Sharm el-Sheikh since he was ousted allegedly suffered a heart attack just as he was about to be questioned by prosecutors. Despite that, he is now to be detained for 15 days. Meanwhile his sons, including his former presidential heir, Gamal, have been held for questioning in Cairo by the wonderfully named Illicit Gains Authority. Efforts to negotiate a transfer of power in Yemen have floundered, at least for the moment, on the question of what to do with the countrys teetering president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Arab Gulf states, who have been trying to mediate, want him to be granted immunity from prosecution in return for leaving office but the Yemeni opposition is saying no he should be held accountable for what he did during his 33 years in power. In Tunisia in January, President Ben Ali was allowed to fly off quietly into the night. France refused to let his plane land and, after a circuitous journey around the Mediterranean he ended up as a guest of the Saudi king in Jeddah. The Tunisians have since been trying to get him back to put him on trial. On Monday, after a long and bloody standoff, Ivory Coasts outgoing president, Laurent Gbago, was finally arrested. Then theres the case of Moussa Koussa, the apparently defected Libyan foreign minister whose arrival in Britain was greeted with delight at first until people started asking questions about his murky past and whether he should be treated as a friend or a criminal. That has now been put into abeyance by his departure for Qatar. The issue here is one of expediency versus principle. Most of the worlds dictators see themselves as rulers for life, so they dont worry too much about the niceties of the law or constitutions while in office. The prospect of having misdeeds exposed if they lose control then becomes one of the reasons for clinging to power until the bitter end even if that means dragging the whole country down with them. Getting rid of them after years of repression brings a sense of relief to most of their citizens. For some, it is enough to see them gone, regardless of whether they spend the rest of their days in jail or in comfortable exile. Allowing them to go with dignity (in the words of Saleh) may not be what they deserve, but sometimes it may be the most practical solution and it might also smooth the way for easing out other dictators in other countries. No tyrant is going to agree to leave if it means being hanged, drawn and quartered as soon as he steps down. Besides the relief, though, there is also anger at what they have done and not to address that would be unfair to the victims of their misrule. Tempting as it may be to seek retribution, retribution for its own sake doesnt achieve much. The way members of the old regime are treated should set the tone for the new regime. To simply overlook transgressions from the past would not be a good precedent. It is important to signal that those who abuse their power will be dealt with eventually, if and when the opportunity arises. Guardian