Shuffled Off in Buffalo

Many critics believe the Bush administration has stepped out of bounds in its pursuit of terrorist suspects. Federal prosecutors' actions in upstate New York will strengthen the cries of "foul."

The FBI last fall arrested six Lackawanna, N.Y., men of Yemeni origin and charged them with conspiracy and aiding a terrorist organization. All six had been to Afghanistan in early 2001 for training by Al Qaeda.

But prosecutors used dubious tactics to force the men into a plea-bargain admitting guilt to lesser charges. According to The Wall Street Journal, they threatened the defendants with "enemy combatant" status - meaning they could have been turned over to the military, deprived of counsel, and held incommunicado indefinitely.

In other words, the government said, convict yourself or we will strip you of your rights and you can rot in jail. That doesn't sound like respect for due process and trial by jury.

Prosecutors also threatened to bring treason charges that carry the death penalty. That's hardball, but within bounds, since the defendants would have a lawyer and a jury trial.

The case is disturbing because it appears the evidence is weak. A former FBI official said surveillance showed no sign the men had hostile intent. The US attorney in Buffalo confirmed he has no evidence they were involved in a violent plot. Several of the men had quit the training, reportedly disillusioned with Al Qaeda.

In passing sentence, the judge should consider the coercive pressure brought on the men to plead guilty and mitigate their sentences.

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