Genuine Justice

Inherent in the war against terrorism is the pursuit of justice. The perpetrators behind the suicide hijackings must be brought to account. No one argues otherwise.

But how to do it? Justice, to be genuine, can't be shorn of the procedures that ensure an honest assessment of guilt and innocence. The United States continues to debate whether the military tribunals authorized by President Bush will uphold that standard.

Currently, the spotlight is on the rules being developed for the tribunals. According to news accounts, trials will include an assumption of innocence, a choice of lawyers, and doors usually open to the public and press. But the key question of meaningful appeal is unresolved.

It's good this debate goes on. The intense soul-searching shows the country cares about these things. That's partly what sets it and other mature democracies apart.

At the other extreme are regimes like the now-defeated Taliban in Afghanistan. Its version of justice involved summary public amputations and executions. The accused could do little to defend themselves. The word of the mullah who served as judge was final.

Such practices aren't limited to particularly regressive regimes like the Taliban. China, for all its economic progressiveness, is still in the dark ages with its justice system. The leadership's favored way of fighting rampant crime involves periodic sweeps by the police to bring as many criminals as possible to "justice." Confessions are regularly beaten out of the accused, defenses are minimal, and executions are common - more than 5,000 this year.

Another example: Peru. That Andean land was besieged by terrorist guerrillas a decade ago - until then-President Alberto Fujimori cracked down. He authorized the creation of secret military courts. Those courts were effective in that they led to convictions. The civilian courts had been paralyzed by fear of revenge by the terrorists.

But many Peruvians sucked into those courts were later found to be innocent - a fact they had little chance to prove earlier because of star-chamber procedures. Some 600 prisoners have been released since a review of cases began in 1996.

In each of these countries, weak institutions, together with ideology and crisis, forged systems that fell far short of real justice.

The American system, too, can fall short of that ideal. But its institutional safeguards - starting with the Constitution - ensure an attempt, at least, to hear all sides and to arrive at sound judgment. Those safequards might be loosened somewhat in a crisis like the war on terrorism. As the debate about the tribunals is showing, they can never be left behind.

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