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Bin Laden son-in-law's trial in New York reignites Guantánamo debate

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, is charged with conspiring to kill US nationals and will be tried in a civilian court in New York. Some say he should be sent to Gitmo.

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“The first thing Obama did when he was sworn into office was sign an executive order to close Guantánamo Bay,” says Brian Carso, director of the program in government law and national security at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. “This is an effort to get away from that kind of detention.”

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But the decision to arraign Abu Ghaith in downtown Manhattan, blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, has angered some lawmakers, like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire, who say the Al Qaeda spokesman should be considered an enemy combatant and tried in a military tribunal at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

“The trick about giving this gentleman a civilian trial means he gets to lawyer up, we give him certain rights under the Constitution when we bring him to the US and put him in an American court,” says Professor Carso. “The reason we haven’t done this typically with Al Qaeda operatives is because when we capture foreign combatants on enemy soil they don’t have rights under the Constitution. We have a lot more options in terms of interrogation and imprisonment if we don’t put them in an American courtroom.”

Mr. Raha of Human Rights First calls a civilian trial a “practical solution” and says civilian courts have been handling terror cases for three decades.

“Since 9/11 nearly 500 individuals, 67 of whom were captured overseas, have been convicted of international terrorism offenses in civilian court…. It is not unprecedented,” he says.

Carso disagrees.

“I think we’d be better off treating this individual as an enemy combatant and detaining him offshore,” he says. Trying Abu Ghaith in civilian court “has the potential of providing this individual with a forum to promote the Al Qaeda agenda in an open courtroom, there are still are security concerns in New York, and I don’t see the rationale for treating enemy combatants as criminals in a civilian court.”

He adds that in a criminal case there is a high standard of evidence.

“What if he doesn’t get convicted under that standard?” he asks. “It a roll of the dice.”

Raha calls military trial in Guantanamo a “non-option.”

“For the most part, military trials there have not moved forward, and when they have, have been hit with one legal or policy problem or another,” he says. “There have been only seven convictions since 9/11, two of which have been overturned. It’s not surprising to me that security officials trying to make a practical decision would pick a venue that works over one that doesn’t.”

As pretrial proceedings continue, controversy over the decision to try Abu Ghaith in civilian court is likely to mount, potentially overshadowing key evidence that emerges against the Al Qaeda operative.

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