Trump Administration Should Prosecute Terrorism Suspects in Federal Courts

In response to reports that President Trump is considering whether to send an alleged al Qaeda member to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights First urged the administration to instead prosecute suspects in federal courts, which have a long track record of success in adjudicating terrorism cases.

“The Trump Administration is treating the decision of whether or not to send detainees to Guantanamo as somehow fraught, when in reality it should be a no-brainer. If we want to get the best intelligence out of al Qaeda members and be tough on terrorism, federal courts are clearly the way to go,” said Human Rights First’s Raha Wala.

New data collected by Human Rights First in a FOIA request from the Department of Justice shows that federal civilian criminal courts have convicted more than 580 individuals on terrorism-related charges since 9/11. Military commissions have convicted only eight, three of which have been overturned completely and one partially. Federal court convictions include those resulting from investigations of terrorist acts and of criminal acts by those with an identified link to international terrorism.

Retired Major General Michael R. Lehnert, the first commanding officer of Guantanamo Bay, has said, “Guantanamo stands as a symbol of lawlessness and abuse. Our enemies point to Guantanamo to bolster their propaganda and our allies continue to view it as an impediment to otherwise essential cooperation on counterterrorism matters. Federal courts have a long record of capably handling international terrorism cases, which stands in stark contrast to the inconsistent and ineffective performance of military commissions and indefinite detention at Guantanamo.”

Human Rights First notes that federal courts, unlike military commissions, can try suspects for offenses involving fraud, immigration, firearms, and drugs. In addition, convictions for the crime of material support before a military commission, rather than a federal court, have been overturned on appeal because these crimes have not generally been considered war crimes. While Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, was convicted of terrorism-related offenses just over a year after he was captured, the military commission trial for the alleged 9/11 perpetrators has remained mired in pre-trial hearings since May 2012.

National security leaders and former government officials—including president George W. Bush, and other officials who helped set up the detention center—have supported closing Guantanamo because they’ve determined that it’s operation is contrary to the national interest.  Human Rights First urges President Trump to continue efforts to close the facility.

There are 41 detainees held at Guantanamo, which costs approximately $445 million per year to operate, more than $10 million per detainee. Five detainees have been unanimously cleared for transfer by six national security and intelligence agencies, but it is unclear whether the Trump Administration intends to transfer them. Human Rights First urges the Trump Administration to continue the Periodic Review Boards to evaluate whether detainees can and should be transferred.

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