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Why public and press have a right to witness military tribunal proceedings.
President Hosni Mubarak is quite happy that the United States has decided to try civilian terrorist suspects in military courts. For ten years, Egypt has been taking fire from the West for court-martialing civilians; the new US policy, plus Britain's enactment on December 14 of a package of antiterrorism legislation that includes the right to hold suspects indefinitely, vindicates him. The US and British measures "prove that we were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials, [in response to] these great crimes that threaten the security of society," Mubarak told the state-owned Al Gomhuriya newspaper in a December 16 interview. "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual."
In 1992 Mubarak, his regime under attack from a radical Islamist insurgency, authorized the referral of civilians to military courts on the grounds that such courts dispensed swift justice. Since 1997 there has been virtually no reported militant Islamist activity inside Egypt, but the trials are still going strong. In late November eighty-seven members of the alleged terrorist group Al Wa'ad ("The Promise") went on trial at the desert barracks of Haikstep east of Cairo, with another seven tried in absentia.
Despite the potentially grim outcome of the case--as leaders of a conspiracy that allegedly planned to assassinate Mubarak, some of the defendants could be sentenced to death--on some days there's almost a carnival atmosphere in the courtroom. The prosecution drew snickers from the audience when it tried to enter into evidence the group's arsenal, consisting of a baseball bat and an air rifle. Even the judge couldn't help but wisecrack as a state security officer, citing "secret sources who can be trusted" but could not be named, outlined how the defendants were attempting to overthrow the regime by assassinating, in addition to President Mubarak, a movie director who specializes in producing the closest that Egypt's censor will allow to skin flicks.
When the Al Wa'ad suspects were originally rounded up in May 2001, the papers reported that they had been sending money to Palestine and Chechnya. But after September 11, the defense says, the government wanted to show the United States that it was an active participant in the war on terror, so it added assassination charges and downgraded fundraising charges. So far the prosecution case is mostly confessions delivered to state security officers, which the defendants claim were extracted under torture.
Compared with Egypt's civilian courts, the standards of evidence in military courts are a bit looser. Procedurally, however, the two are much the same. The big difference is the outcome. Military trials are "like a movie," says defense lawyer Negad Al Borei. "They look like reality, but you know what will happen from the beginning."
According to the US State Department's 2000 report on human rights in Egypt, "the use of military courts to try civilians continued to infringe on a defendant's right to a fair trial before an independent judiciary.... While military judges are lawyers, they are also military officers appointed by the Minister of Defense and subject to military discipline. They are neither as independent nor as qualified as civilian judges in applying the civilian Penal Code." It will be interesting to see what the State Department says next year, now that military trials for civilians have become US policy.
Critical human rights reports, of course, never stopped the United States from considering Egypt its "strategic partner" in the war on terror, as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in November. Nor, according to reports in both the Arab and US press, did such reports discourage the CIA from assisting in the extradition of alleged jihad activist Ahmed Naggar from Albania to Egypt, where a military court tried and convicted him in 1999. He was hanged early the next year.
Nor have they deterred the tribunals from processing alleged Islamists at a fairly brisk rate: The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights counted a total of thirty-two trials involving 1,001 defendants in 1999, of whom 625 were sentenced to prison and ninety-four sentenced to execution (only sixty-seven were actually executed). Mubarak declared that military courts "would only be used to confront terrorism." In 2000, however, fifteen members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has renounced violence since the 1970s, were given prison sentences of up to five years for "conspiring" to run for office in local and parliamentary elections.
Certainly, a few of those convicted over the past decade in Egypt's military trials were murderous fanatics. However, even when the trials deal with genuine militant groups, rights activists say, you rarely know which of the defendants are truly dangerous and which were simply picked up from the local mosque to round out the numbers.
Early in the 1990s, when bombs were exploding in Cairo and every week brought fresh reports of officers killed in the Islamist strongholds of southern Egypt, it was easy enough to figure out why the regime might resort to military trials. Perhaps they've continued after the demise of the militant movement partly because security officers want to show their utility (there have also been proceedings against a gay "conspiracy," an allegedly treasonous academic and a sacrilegious author in the past year). Perhaps they've continued because the regime just wants to keep Islamic activists on edge or feels it necessary to show that it's keeping up with the war on terror. Whatever the reason, the regime has certainly taken the West's "new concept of democracy" as a sign that it's on the right track.
The regulations proposed to implement George W. Bush's order establishing military commissions for the trial of "international terrorists" are mere window dressing and will not cure the fatal defects of the order. They provide the accused with so little protection as to raise a suspicion that they are made primarily to disarm the critics.
The fundamental problem is that the proposed system, including all its "judicial" elements, still lies entirely within the military chain of command and subordinate to the President, who is the ultimate authority over every aspect of the proceedings. But independent impartial judges who are not beholden to any side are the indispensable bedrock of any credible system of justice. They must be the ones to make the basic decisions or at least to review them. Without such a tribunal to monitor them, the various "protections" provided by the proposed regulations--the presumption of innocence, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even outside counsel--mean little or nothing.
This is not a novel insight. Congress and the military have recognized how indispensable an independent judiciary is to a meaningful system of justice: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, verdicts are not final until they have been reviewed by a civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The provision of an appeal mechanism, especially in cases as politically and internationally sensitive as these, thus adds nothing to the fairness of the process--it merely insures that the final decision will be made by higher-ranking military officers who are still subject to military and presidential control.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, aware of these shortcomings, has sought to reassure doubters by noting that habeas corpus review will be available. But the order itself, which the regulations are only supposed to implement, expressly prohibits recourse to any court, as he well knows. For this reason, he was careful to describe the review as just a check on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, that is, whether the commission has the legal authority to try the particular accused. But review of a tribunal's jurisdiction does not touch on any substantive or procedural aspect of a proceeding, such as apprehension, detention, pretrial procedure, trial, evidentiary rulings, verdict or the sentence.
Moreover, as noted, the order specifically mandates that the ultimate authority is the President. Since the initial decision to apprehend someone is also the President's, and since everyone in the decision-making process, including the prosecutor, is subordinate to the President as the Commander in Chief, the police, prosecutor, some defense counsel, judge and jury are all rolled into one entity subject to one man--the antithesis of a just system. And given the rigidity of the military hierarchy and the natural desire of military personnel for promotion, who would challenge a judgment of their Commander in Chief that there is reason to believe someone is guilty of international terrorism and must be taken into custody--even if, as in so many instances, the action is as much for political reasons as for national security?
Compounding the difficulty is the absence of any real limit on what evidence may be admitted. The tribunal still may admit single, double and triple hearsay, affidavits, opinion and other dubious evidence. None of this can be effectively tested by cross-examination, especially since some of this evidence can be kept secret from the accused and his lawyers.
The decision to open up the proceedings to public view looks good, but it is only conditional--they may be closed if evidence that the tribunal considers worthy of secrecy is to be admitted. We have learned to our dismay how quick government officials are to classify information, even when it is already in the public domain. This Administration is particularly secretive, as shown by Bush's order holding back presidential papers from public release, as well as the refusal to reveal any information about the 1,000-plus detainees held since September 11. Moreover, the usual reason for secrecy is that disclosure will reveal methods and sources. But reliance on sources often involves very subjective judgments based on inaccurate or untrustworthy information. Yet it is just this kind of evidence that is most likely to be kept secret.
These are not tribunals worthy of a nation governed by law. And we don't need them. In the past eight years we have convicted twenty-six terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other cases in ordinary criminal trials and without revealing any secrets. The Administration realizes this, for it has decided to try the alleged "twentieth hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, in the criminal justice system.
The problem with these proposals is not that some people will never be satisfied--it is that the demands of justice have not been satisfied.
What plagued the O.J. Simpson trial—corruption, malfeasance and a breakdown of the rule of law—is exactly what the 'war on terror' is achieving in its blind quest to hold Bin Laden to account.