Terrorist Cases Should Be Tried in U.S. Federal Courts

The good news is in the headline of this Washington Post story, Guantanamo Closure Called Obama Priority. According to Obama advisers speaking anonymously, the Obama Administration will launch an immediate review of the classified files of those detained – some 250 people – at Guantanamo Bay upon taking office. Closing Guantanamo would send a potent message to the rest of the world, and would “create a global wave of diplomatic and popular goodwill that could accelerate the transfer of some detainees to other countries.”

But there has been talk – denied by Obama’s transition team – about contemplating some form of preventive detention backed by a new civilian national security court. Proponents of preventive detention often cite national security concerns and the need to protect operational secrets as grounds for keeping some of the cases out of U.S. federal courts. They also note that some cases against detainees in custody have been compromised by torture and coercive interrogations.

Fair enough, but hiding the use of torture, and allowing the use of evidence gathered by torture is anathema to U.S. standards of justice. Some Obama advisers acknowledge that the degradation of the image of the U.S. because of the Bush Administration’s policies is too severe to countenance any form of preventive detention. At any rate, Human Rights First believes that the federal courts are up to the task of trying those detainees who can be put on trial:

“The federal criminal courts are capable of handling serious terrorist cases and capable of handling people and evidence seized overseas, without sacrificing the government’s need to protect sensitive material, while protecting defendants’ rights,” said Deborah Colson, a senior associate at Human Rights First.

Read our report, where HRF noted that since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there have been 107 successful prosecutions of international terrorism cases in the federal courts, compared with three convictions in military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, including one plea bargain. (See also our Blueprint to Close Guantanamo detailing the steps necessary to close Guantanamo.)

During the campaign, Obama seemed to favor federal prosecution of terrorism suspects: “It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Obama said in August, after the completion of the first trial at Guantanamo Bay, which resulted in a relatively mild sentence for Osama bin Laden’s driver.


Published on November 12, 2008


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