Feature

Terrorism: Do jihadists deserve a lawyer?

All Qaida propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was arrested and sent not to Guantánamo, but to a federal court in Manhattan.

The Obama administration has just turned the clock back to that naïve era before 9/11, when “al Qaida was a law-enforcement problem,” said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. The FBI last week arrested al Qaida propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith—the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden—in Jordan. But rather than send him to Guantánamo for interrogation and trial before a military commission, the administration shipped Abu Ghaith to a federal court in Manhattan, where he promptly lawyered up and pleaded “not guilty” to charges of conspiring to kill Americans. Trying an enemy combatant before a civilian court is a colossal mistake, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “As a close bin Laden lieutenant with knowledge of the terror networks, there’s much Abu Ghaith knows that we should want to know.” It makes no sense to give him the same rights as American citizens, along with lawyers who will advise “him to say as little as possible.”

There’s a simple reason Abu Ghaith could not be sent to Guantánamo, said John Hudson in ForeignPolicy.com. The military court there only has jurisdiction over war crimes. And while Abu Ghaith appeared alongside bin Laden in jihadist videos, the government has no evidence the former schoolteacher had any operational role in the group or specific terror plots. Calling for the murder of Americans “makes him a terrible person but not necessarily a war criminal.” Justice is also more likely to be served in a federal court in New York than in Guantánamo, said Peter Bergen in CNN.com. Of the 39 terrorism cases heard in New York state since 9/11, 35 defendants have pleaded or been found guilty, and four await trial. In contrast, only six of the 779 prisoners who have been held at Guantánamo have been convicted.

More importantly, this trial will show that the American legal system is “restored from the dark days of waterboarding,” said Michael Daly in TheDailyBeast.com. In “a nation of laws,” we don’t torture and interrogate evil men like Abu Ghaith in secret, even if he “cheered the murder of thousands” on 9/11. We give them lawyers, put them on trial, and if they’re found guilty, throw them in jail. After I watched Abu Ghaith appear in court last week, just nine blocks from where the World Trade Center fell, I walked outside and looked up at the majestic new spire rising in the towers’ place. America is back.

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