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Civil libertarians speak out against military tribunals

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         Nov 15, 2001    

Civil libertarians speak out against military tribunals

  • The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association are upset over an order President Bush signed this week allowing the United States to try suspected terrorists in potentially secret courts.

Civil libertarian groups, upset with a military tribunal order signed by President Bush this week, are calling on Congress to ensure that the formation of the secret courts doesn’t infringe on the right to fair trial and the public’s right to know.

The Nov. 13 order signed by President Bush created the tribunals to allow the United States to try suspected terrorists faster and in greater secrecy than in an ordinary criminal court.

Because of an “extraordinary emergency,” the order reads, military tribunals are needed “to protect the United States and its citizens, and for the effective conduct of military operations and the prevention of terrorist attacks.”

The order gives Bush the option of designating for military trial any non-American accused of terrorist attacks, of being members of Al-Queda or of harboring terrorists. The accused would be transferred to military custody, detained, tried and, if convicted, sentenced.

The accused would have the right to a lawyer. A two-thirds vote of the tribunal members would be required for conviction and sentencing, pending review of the president and the secretary of defense.

Robert Hirshon, president of the American Bar Association called the order “a very important and complex issue with a number of potential ramifications, both domestically and within the international community.”

In a Nov. 14 statement, Hirshon said he has asked the ABA’s Task force on Terrorism and the Law to examine the issue and make the appropriate recommendations.

The American Civil Liberties Union, however, said the order circumvents traditional court practices.

“It is difficult to understand how the Administration can justify the use of a tribunal when the United States has successfully tried in our courts non-citizens accused of terrorist acts,” said Laura Murphy, the ACLU’s Washington director, in a Nov. 14 statement.

“The use of military tribunals would apparently authorize secret trials without a jury and without the requirement of a unanimous verdict and would limit a defendant’s opportunities to confront the evidence against him and choose his own lawyer,” Murphy said. “What’s worse, these important legal protections would be removed in a situation where defendants may very well be facing the death penalty.”

The ACLU concluded its statement by calling on Congress “to exercise its oversight powers” before civil liberties are abused and the Bill of Rights is distorted.

But the president does not need the approval of Congress to call tribunals, although it has not been done in the United States since World War II.


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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