(New York) - The Obama administration's decision to prosecute the September 11 suspects in federal court represents an important step forward for justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today that five of the suspects facing pending military commission charges at Guantanamo would be transferred for federal trial in the United States.
"The Obama administration recognized that a trial of this historic importance belongs in a fair and time-tested justice system," said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch. "The military commissions at Guantanamo are simply not up to the task."
Unlike the deeply flawed military commission proceedings, the federal civilian courts can give the defendants a fair and credible trial, one that will be recognized as such internationally. Their use will also send a clear message that terrorists are criminals rather than soldiers in an armed conflict.
Human Rights Watch said that the importance of the 9/11 trial to America's reputation in the fight against terrorism cannot be overestimated. These historic proceedings must be fair - and be perceived as fair - and their verdicts must be viewed as credible. By moving them to federal court and out of the ad hoc, chaotic, and discredited military commissions at Guantanamo, the administration has taken a crucial step toward ensuring that the results of the trial will be recognized as legitimate.
Over 150 defendants have been convicted on terrorism charges in US federal courts since 2001. The military commissions have only tried three cases during the same period.
Human Rights Watch said that today's announcement to transfer five cases to federal courts was diminished by the administration's decision to keep other pending cases before military commissions, providing substandard justice. While the recently enacted Military Commissions Act of 2009 significantly improves upon the Bush administration's system of military commissions, it still departs in fundamental ways from the fair trial procedures used in US federal courts and courts martial. Human Rights Watch said that any trial before the revised system of military commissions will carry the stigma of Guantanamo.
The cases remaining before military commissions include that of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was 15 years old in 2002 when he allegedly threw the grenade that killed US Army Sgt. First Class Christopher Speer and wounded two others. The US government has refused to acknowledge his status as a child or to apply universally recognized standards of juvenile justice in his case.
No international tribunal since Nuremberg has prosecuted a child for alleged war crimes. The United Nations committee that monitors the rights of children found that the United States has held alleged child soldiers at Guantanamo without giving due account of their status as children and concluded that the "conduct of criminal proceedings against children within the military justice system should be avoided."
"Why would the Obama administration attempt to revive discredited military commissions by trying a child soldier?" Mariner said. "They should not be trying anyone before military commissions."
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators were held for years without charge or trial in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency, and were not transferred to Guantanamo until September 2006. The five men were charged before the military commissions in February 2008.
Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration to prosecute in federal court all the detainees at Guantanamo accused of terrorism and other crimes.
Members of al Qaeda seek to be acknowledged as soldiers rather than denigrated as criminals, Human Rights Watch said. Putting them on trial in military commissions would have reinforced that view, handing al Qaeda an enormous propaganda victory. Trial in federal court will deny them the status of warrior.
Judge William Young underscored this point in the 2003 trial of the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid. As Judge Young said at the defendant's sentencing, "You are not an enemy combatant. You are a terrorist. You are not a soldier in any war. . . To give you that reference, to call you a soldier, gives you far too much stature."