Fairness Still the Standard

How to deal with prisoners detained in the war against terrorism is a thorny question.

Many of the procedures for handling them are still in the formative stages. The US legal system has rarely had a challenge like this, with concerns about national security and public safety threatening to eclipse such essentials of justice as open trials and clear charges.

When hearings and other legal maneuvers are shrouded in secrecy those standards can become fuzzy. That's been the case with many of the foreign-born Arab and Muslim men put in custody by investigative sweeps following Sept. 11. Most have been released, but some 300 are still being held.

The aura of secrecy is being lifted, somewhat, by the case of Rabih Haddad. Mr. Haddad, co-founder of a Muslim charity suspected by the government of having terrorist ties, has been jailed since mid-December on charges of overstaying his visa. His hearings before immigration courts were sub rosa, per government order.

But a number of newspapers in Michigan, where Haddad lived, sued to make the court records public, and last week a federal judge ruled in their favor. This week the government released 1,000 pages of documents. Prosecutors continued to withhold information they considered too sensitive, however, and they're appealing the judge's ruling.

At the very least, the Haddad case suggests a complete veil of secrecy isn't justified in this case, since nothing in the released material could be construed as endangering national security. It also highlights the very un-American practice of holding someone indefinitely until a more serious charge can be developed against him.

That problem arises even more starkly for the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Government prosecutors are trying to develop ways to bring these men before military tribunals even without definite evidence of war crimes Â- on the theory that association with Al Qaeda or the Taliban is itself incriminating.

The American commitment to justice is being given a hard test. But a firm grasp on the basics of fairness can see it through.

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