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U.S. courts best venue to try terror cases, study says

The analysis of 107 cases after 9/11 adds fuel to the debate over whether military tribunals are needed.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008


The US criminal justice system is up to the task of detaining, placing on trial, and punishing suspected international terrorists, according to a report released on Wednesday.

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With preparations under way for military commission trials to begin in July at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the advocacy group Human Rights First has published an analysis of 107 terrorism cases prosecuted in American courts since the 9/11 attacks.

The authors, both former federal prosecutors, say an examination of US terror cases reveals that existing structures and institutions in the federal justice system are robust and flexible enough to detain and prosecute most terror suspects.

Lawyers Richard Zabel and James Benjamin say that existing courts enjoy many advantages over the untested military commission process at Guantánamo or the proposed creation of a special national security court in the US.

"In general, the criminal justice system has done a good job in handling terrorism cases," Mr. Benjamin said at a press conference. "It has produced reliable results without causing security breaches or other problems for national security."

The report emerges amid growing calls to close the Guantánamo terror prison camp and with the US Supreme Court expected to rule by late June on the legal rights of terror suspects there.

Officials at Human Rights First say the report is intended to spark wider debate over potential alternatives to military commissions.

The report's authors stress that they are not suggesting complete reliance on US courts to wage the war on terror. "The criminal justice system by itself can't be the only answer," Benjamin says.

But the two former prosecutors said that their research showed that the justice system is strong and flexible enough to handle many cases that some thought could never be tried in open court.

"The system has grown and adapted to handle cases that years ago it couldn't handle," says Mr. Zabel.

"In our view, before any dramatic changes are imposed ... it is important to take a step back and evaluate the capability of the existing federal courts and the existing body of federal law to handle criminal cases arising from international terrorism," Zabel and Benjamin write in their 171-page report.

More than 250 defendants were named in the 107 post-9/11 cases examined by Zabel and Benjamin. Of those, 145 either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial. Fifteen defendants were acquitted.

The report notes that five defendants have been sentenced to life in prison, including confessed Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui and confessed shoe bomber Richard Reid. The average prison sentence for the remaining convicted defendants is more than eight years.

Federal judges were faced with the challenge of conducting a fair trial against concerns that disclosures in open court might harm national security. The report says that many trials have been conducted with the aid of the Classified Information Procedures Act. The law establishes a mechanism to allow a judge to assess the importance of sensitive evidence before it is disclosed in open court and, if necessary, create a nonclassified substitute for use at trial.