America's trials: The 9/11 cases raise some troubling issues

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Six men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be put on trial in the near future.

It is appropriate that the accused face trial, as opposed to continuing to be held at Guantanamo without charge, in clear contradiction of the American principles of due process of law. Yet there are some real problems.

The first is the astonishing fact that it has taken five to six years to bring them to court. American justice is notably creaky, but that kind of delay, when the crime in question was so horrendous, is remarkable.

The second is that at least one of the accused was waterboarded and perhaps otherwise tortured during interrogation. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey is still dancing around the question of whether waterboarding is torture. In any case, evidence obtained through such methods is by its nature suspect to the point of being unconvincing, if not inadmissible.

A third problem is the nature of the trials that the six will receive. They will be before a military commission, a hybrid of civilian and military justice. They will not be a model of what Americans consider to be normal justice: a prosecution, a defense and a decision by a judge or jury. The rest of the world, including people in the defendants' countries of origin -- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait and Pakistan (all allies of the United States) -- may not consider what takes place to be proper trials.

Another problem is that the military prosecution will seek the death penalty. The charges include war crimes and murder. That will not shock Americans, but much of the rest of the world considers the prevailing U.S. attitude toward the death penalty to be barbaric. If those convicted are then executed, there may be an international outcry.

Finally, there is the question of the timing. The Bush administration, a Republican administration, has chosen to schedule the trials of the six in the 2008 election year. Officials will say the timing was not intentional and that it just took all this time to prepare the proceedings. At the same time, however, the trials will provide a perfect backdrop for familiar Bush and Republican claims that they have kept Americans safe since September 2001 -- and will do so in the future -- more effectively than those soft-on-terror Democrats.

America, of course, doesn't hold political trials. Or does it?


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