Taking the Justice Out of the Justice System
Posted on Aug 21, 2011
By Karen J. Greenberg, TomDispatch
You might think, then, that the courts had proved their mettle against mounting criticism and distrust of a system said to be insufficiently harsh. And initially, Obama’s Department of Justice defended civilian courts as resilient and flexible enough to try terror cases.
But that didn’t last. Recently, the Obama administration has reinforced a policy (begun under President Bush) which offers an ominous new twist on American justice: punishment before trial. It has, for example, relied upon various extreme methods of pre-trial isolation—including a version of restrictive orders known as Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs—that reek of punitiveness and have often caused severe psychological deterioration in suspects awaiting trial on terrorism charges. The most noteworthy case of this is Syed Fahad Hashmi’s. An American citizen arrested while studying in England, Hashmi had allowed an acquaintance, Mohammed Junaid Babar, to stay in his apartment for two weeks. Babar, who testified against Hashmi and was later released, allegedly had socks, ponchos, and raingear intended for al-Qaeda in his luggage and allegedly used Hashmi’s cell phone to call terrorist conspirators. Hashmi, accused of “material support” for al-Qaeda, was kept under SAMs for three years without trial—until he finally pled guilty.
The urge to punish before a verdict comes in reflects the same deep-seated conviction that the U.S. court system is simply not to be trusted to do its job. Two recent cases—that of whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Bradley Manning—illustrate how, in cases where national security is believed to be at stake, Obama-era pre-trial treatment has taken up the distrust of the courts, civilian or military, that characterized the Bush years.
Drake, an executive for the National Security Agency (NSA), became a whistleblower over what he considered mistaken policy decisions about an ill-performing data-sifting program which, among other things, he thought squandered taxpayer money. Subsequently, he revealed his disagreement with the agency’s warrantless wire-tapping program, which he believed overstepped legal boundaries. Charged initially with violating the Espionage Act and threatened with a draconian 35-year jail sentence, Drake finally pled this past June to a misdemeanor count of “exceeding the authorized use of a government computer.”
Square, Site wide
Another highly publicized case where punishment preceded trial has been the mistreatment of Army Private Bradley Manning while in military custody in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, awaiting charges. The Obama administration believes he turned over a trove of secret military and State Department documents to the website WikiLeaks. Following his arrest, Manning was kept in subhuman conditions. He was forced to sleep naked and to strip for daily inspections, though as news about his situation generated bad publicity, he was eventually allowed to sleep in a “tear-proof” gown.
There is something deeply disturbing about the very different ways Manning and Drake were pre-punished by the government—both directly in the case of Manning and indirectly in the case of Drake—before being given due process of any kind. Like bin Laden’s killing, both cases reflect an unspoken worry in Washington that our courts will prove insufficiently ruthless and so incapable of giving the “obviously guilty” what they “obviously” deserve.
The Courts Take Notice
As it turns out, the judicial system hasn’t taken the government’s new attitude lying down. Various judges and juries have, in fact, shown themselves to be unfazed by both public and governmental pressures and have, in terror and national security cases, demonstrated signs of balance and of a concern for justice, rather than being driven by a blind sense of revenge.
In the past year, there has been an unprecedented number of high-profile terrorism trials. All have resulted in convictions, which have nonetheless not reflected the unstinting harshness that critics of court-centered counterterrorism insist upon. In the case of Ahmed Ghailani, the sole Guantanamo detainee to face trial in the nation’s criminal justice system, the jury, having done its work of assessing the evidence, acquitted the defendant on 284 of 285 counts, including all the murder charges associated with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. On the single count on which he was convicted, however, Ghailani was given a life sentence without parole.
Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorism case—that of Tagawwur Rana—ended in a jury acquittal on its most serious charge. Rana had been accused of cooperating in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which resulted in the deaths of more than 160 individuals. The jury found Rana guilty of material support, but not of helping to coordinate the attack.
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