Are US military tribunals fair?
Posted by sanityinjection on August 6, 2008
The big news today is the conviction of Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, on terrorism charges in the first full military trial of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. I have seen a few articles on this, but (not surprisingly) I think the WashPost does the best job of presenting a complete picture of the trial:
There has been much concern expressed by civil liberties types about whether military trials will be fair to the defendants. These concerns are not totally without foundation. For example, the military tribunal considered statements Hamdan made during interrogation, which he was not warned could later be used against him. (A civilian criminal would have to have been read his rights, or “Mirandized”, and if he had not been, the statements would have been inadmissible in court.) However, the military judge did throw out certain statements made by Hamdan which he called “highly coercive”.
I find there is substantial evidence to suggest that the military is doing its best to conduct these trials fairly. Consider the following:
- The defense had the opportunity to question and dismiss jurors just as in a civilian trial.
- Defense lawyers were able to call eight witnesses to testify on Hamdan’s behalf, two of whom were permitted to testify in secret for their own protection, which is very rarely allowed in civilian trials.
- Unlike in civilian criminal trials, where defendants are often represented by underpaid and undermotivated public defenders, Hamdan’s lawyers are experts with experience defending clients in military tribunals.
- The verdicts did not come quickly but only after three full days of deliberation by the 6-person military jury.
- Hamdan was convicted of “material support of terrorism” but acquitted of a more serious charge of conspiracy.
- Contrary to international rumor, the charge Hamdan was convicted of carries a maximum sentence of life in prison and is not subject to the death penalty. There will be a sentencing hearing conducted very similarly to a civilian sentencing hearing.
- Hamdan’s conviction is automatically appealed to a military appellate court. Following that, Hamdan’s attorneys can further appeal to the civilian federal Court of Appeals and even to the Supreme Court.
I doubt that Hamdan will get a life sentence. Even prosecutors acknowledge that Hamdan is a relatively small fish in the terrorist pond. That’s why they wanted him to be the first guinea pig.