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Possible Shift on US Terror Trial Alarms Human Rights Groups

Human rights and legal rights groups are urging the Obama administration not to change its decision to try the alleged conspirators of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States in the civilian court system as opposed to military commissions. The plea comes as senior administration officials reportedly are ready to recommend a shift back to the use of military commissions in the wake of a political firestorm that erupted over the initial decision by the Justice Department last November.

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Last November, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that five alleged conspirators of the 9-11 attacks including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would go on trial in a federal court in New York City in connection with the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

But that decision may be about to be reversed, according to senior Obama administration officials cited in the Washington Post and by other sources.

A decision to reverse course could come as early as next week and would be the latest twist in a political firestorm that erupted over the issue of civilian trials since it was announced by Attorney General Holder last year.

The question of whether to try the alleged 9-11 conspirators in a civilian court or through a military justice track sparked an intense debate in Congress and on the nation's airwaves.

"I think trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York is a big mistake," said former Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke recently on ABC's "This Week" program.  "It gives him a huge platform to promulgate his particular brand of propaganda around the world.  I think he ought he ought to be at Guantanamo.  I think he ought to be tried at Guantanamo in front of a military commission."

Vice President Joe Biden argued in favor of a civilian trial on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"Under the Bush administration there were three trials in military courts," he said. "Two of those people are now walking the streets.  They are free.  There were 300 trials of so-called terrorists, and those who engaged in terrorist acts against the United States of America who are in federal prison and have not seen the light of day."

Reaction in New York City to the prospect of a trial in federal court was decidedly negative, both from local officials and the public.  And recently Attorney General Holder told the Washington Post that transparency was more important than where the trials will ultimately be held, a signal to many that the administration was considering a shift.

Human and legal rights groups have already issued statements urging the administration not to switch the trial venues from the civilian court system to the military.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that a regrettable reversal under political pressure will strike a blow to American values and the rule of law and will undermine America's credibility.  Similar comments came in a statement from the Constitution Project and Human Rights First.

Those who prefer to use military commissions to try suspected terrorists say the procedure offers more protection for the government to keep secret intelligence methods and sensitive information.

"The military version of that in the military commissions is far more protective in terms of the presumptions that are afforded to the government, far more protective of our national security secrets," said Charles Stimson, a legal expert with the Heritage Foundation and a recent guest on VOA's "Encounter" program.  

But other legal experts say the federal court system also includes numerous safeguards to prevent the disclosure of information related to national security.

Aitan Goelman is a former federal prosecutor now in private law practice.  He says the Obama administration will have a difficult time explaining to the world why some suspected terrorists should be tried in civilian courts and some in military commissions.

"There is no question that federal courts can handle cases against terrorists," Goelman said. "The question is at what cost and where is it smart for these people to be tried?  And I have not seen anybody from the administration kind of articulate a principled distinction between the people who they are sending to federal criminal court and the people who they say should be tried by military commissions."

If the change in legal strategy is announced, it may make it easier for the administration to secure funding from Congress to eventually close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The administration missed its self-imposed deadline of closing the facility within a year of Mr. Obama taking office.  Congressional opposition to the move intensified late last year after the attorney general announced the decision to try the 9-11 suspects in federal court.  

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