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Clinton Defends Trying Terrorism Suspects in Civilian Courts

3 years ago
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday defended the use of civilian courts to try detainees at Guantanamo suspected of terrorism, and said some of the same obstacles to use of evidence that resulted in last week's acquittal of a defendant on more than 280 charges would also have been faced by a military tribunal.

Clinton was commenting on the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani who was being tried in federal court in New York for his alleged role in the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Tanzania, which claimed the lives of 224 people, including 12 Americans. Ghailani's defense contended he was an unwitting "dupe" of al-Qaeda operatives.

Ghailani was acquitted of all but one of the charges against him. He was convicted only on one count of conspiracy to destroy government buildings and property. A key reason for the outcome was the judge's decision in the case to exclude a key witness who the government admitted it knew about through information it had obtained from Ghailani during coercive interrogations while he was in CIA custody.

Ahmed Ghalfan GhailaniAlthough Ghailani still faces 20 years in prison, the outcome of the trial was seen as a blow for the Obama administration which wants to pursue its course of using federal courts instead of military tribunals whenever possible, in a departure from the practices of the Bush administration.

Republican critics of the Obama policy had quickly seized on the outcome of the trial. Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee said after the verdict, "I am disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice today in Manhattan's federal civilian court. This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration's decision to try al-Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts."

However, asked on CBS' Face the Nation whether the administration should rethink its policy, Clinton said, "I don't believe so ... The terrorists who are serving time in our maximum security prisons are there because of civilian courts, what are called Article Three Courts. Our Article Three Courts have a much better record of trying and convicting terrorists than military commissions do, and in fact this defendant having been convicted will be sentenced somewhere between 20 years and life."

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She said that "some of the evidence that was presented (in the Ghailani trial) could not be used, but the rules of the military commission ... similarly would [disqualify] certain evidence."

"I think there's a misconception in our own country about what's admissible in terms of evidence in a civilian court versus a military commission," Clinton added, in an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. "They don't have the same rules, but the rules are close enough in terms of what can or can't be admitted into evidence."

Clinton said she believes the "vast majority" of defendants can be tried in civilian courts, although there are some cases that should be reserved for military commissions.

Asked whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, should be tried in a civilian court, Clinton said, "that is a case that is a very difficult one because of all of the security issues and the other problems."

In her NBC interview, Clinton said, "The civilian courts have a better record of actually convicting and imprisoning than we do yet have in the military commission. But we also don't want to have security problems or publicity problems for particularly dangerous leading terrorists. So we should look at the military commission."

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