U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that five of the conspirators behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 will be tried in a New York City federal court and not by a military commission. One of individuals on trial is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to being the mastermind behind the attack.
Many in opposition to Holder’s decision argue that New York City is an inappropriate setting, and that a trial by jury would become a spectacle. But I think these criticisms are exaggerated and a federal trial would remove any sort of questions a military commission may leave. A military commission system would place a strict limit on defendants’ rights to due process and allows for coerced testimony to be presented as evidence. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the harsh limit on the defendants’ rights to due process was unconstitutional. I am not advocating that these terrorism suspects get luxurious treatmen, just that they have the rights all prisoners of war captured by the United States have when on trial.
In federal court, prosecutors will have to follow a much more stringent standard of evidence, which is not enforced in the military commission system. This standard does not mean that prosecutors will have a more difficult job in the federal court system. Since Sept. 11, the federal court system has had a 91 percent conviction rate with close to 60 percent of defendants pleading guilty. The idea that prosecutors will be unable to get a conviction in federal court is just foolish.
With that said, securing the courtroom may be a cause for concern during such a high profile-trial; but once again, this is far from an impossible task. The major question is whether classified information has to be revealed to defendants and their lawyers under civilian trial rules.
Opponents of trying Mohammed in federal court contend that his defense will try to obtain as much information about their client’s treatment while imprisoned and make the trial about his treatment instead of his terrorist activities. Proponents argue that the Classified Information Procedures Act, which protects both parties from the unnecessary disclosure of classified information, will keep the trial from becoming about the treatment of the prisoners and keep it focused on their terrorist activities. Regardless, I wouldn’t anticipate any New York City jurors being swayed from a conviction after hearing about how Mohammed had to sleep on the floor occasionally.
Although Holder has been strongly criticized, I stand by his position. Terrorism suspects should not be treated luxuriously, but they are still entitled to the rights assured to every other person accused of committing a crime in this country. If the United States wants to be the shining beacon for democracy around the world, it has to follow its own rules and allow for these terrorists to be tried in a fair setting. If they are tried in a military commission, which has rules that could potentially lead to misconduct, then the outcome will be tainted.
A verdict from Guantanamo Bay will not be seen as legitimate as a verdict from the New York City Federal Court System. Holder will get the convictions in New York and these terrorists will certainly be sentenced severely, but it will be seen around the world as a legitimate verdict. The hard part about democracy is that you aren’t allowed to pick and choose whom you grant basic human rights.
E-mail Ben Arancibia at [email protected]