7-12-2012By Katerina Herodotou
Law and Security Program
To anyone who doubts the ability of federal courts to effectively handle terrorism-related cases, know this: since September 11, there have been 494 convictions in federal court. Human Rights First recently received these updated statistics from the Department of Justice through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
While the military commissions system at Guantanamo continues to struggle to administer “justice” to suspected terrorists, U.S. federal courts all over the country have been effectively handling terrorism cases, handing down 43 new convictions in 2011. The numbers show that federal courts are fully capable of prosecuting terrorism and terrorism-related offenses, and have been doing just that in 36 states (plus the District of Columbia) and 60 separate districts. Though the number of convictions is not the only important metric for judging the success of the criminal justice system, it shows that federal courts have an established record of handling terrorism cases while respecting rights and advancing U.S. national security interests.
By contrast, the military commissions at Guantanamo have convicted only seven people since their inception. Five of those cases were plea bargains. The Military Commissions Act (MCA), which established the commissions system, authorizes the prosecution of only 30 offenses, which center around terrorism and combat-related actions in the wake of conflict. Moreover, unlike in federal court, some of the key offenses in the MCA – such as conspiracy and material support for terrorism – continue to be challenged in court. Meanwhile, federal courts have 133 offenses available for prosecution–offenses such as fraud, immigration violations and drug trafficking, in addition to terrorism offenses such as attacks on mass transportation, use of weapons of mass destruction and providing material support to terrorists. As a group retired generals and admirals has stated, “We should not forfeit one of the most effective tools to incapacitate terrorists – federal courts.”
You would think that Congress would applaud the brave men and women who serve in our police and FBI, the U.S. attorneys who represent our nation in court, and the judges who so frequently preside over complex terrorism cases. But in May, the House of Representatives voted for a provision in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act mandating that all terror suspects be tried by military commissions. The Senate has not yet voted on its version of the defense bill; one can only hope common sense will prevail.
In the hundreds of cases prosecuted since 9/11, federal courts have prevented the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, protected key constitutional rights, and even prosecuted 67 terrorism suspects captured abroad. These new statistics underscore the importance of holding terrorists accountable in a justice system that has experience and precedent with criminal prosecutions, one that treats terrorists as criminals and not as the warriors they claim to be.