Terrorists on Trial

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Terrorists on Trial


Byline: The Register-Guard

After President Bush declared two months ago that the United States was free to try terrorist leaders in U.S. military tribunals abroad, critics charged that such proceedings would breach America's commitment to human rights and soil American justice before a watching world.

Administration officials have testily defended the tribunals, arguing that they have been used several times before in the country's history and have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a bombastic Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft went so far as to challenge the patriotism of any who dared challenge the administration's plan, saying their "tactics only aid terrorists."

Since then, administration officials have responded in a less foghornish manner to the legitimate concerns of some of this nation's most distinguished civil libertarians and legal scholars.

Many of those concerns stemmed from the vagueness of the president's Nov. 13 order, which allowed tribunals to operate in secret, set no limits on their application and allowed a two-thirds majority of presiding officers to sentence defendants to death. Nor did Bush's order make any provisions for the most elemental aspects of due process, such as requiring that defendants not be held indefinitely without trial or providing a right to appeal.

Since that time, the administration has issued a draft proposal for the tribunals that answers some, but not all, of these concerns. The tribunals could impose the death penalty only with a unanimous vote, would operate partially in public and would presume accused terrorists innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - the same rigorous standard of proof that applies in civilian courts. Defendants would have a right of appeal, although procedures have yet to be established.

Such characteristics would make the military tribunals similar in many ways to the courts. That raises a nagging question: Why wouldn't it be better to try suspected terrorists under the normal American criminal justice system?

Bush has yet to make a convincing case for why al-Qaeda leaders and others charged in the attack of Sept. 11 shouldn't stand trial in a federal courtroom where they'd face prosecution by the people of the United States for an epic crime committed against the people of the United States. Nor has the president explained why the rest of the world shouldn't witness American justice and freedoms at work instead of receiving a verdict from a military tribunal that many would consider suspect from the outset. …

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