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A terrorist in court.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The rule of law does not conflict with the fight against terrorism. To the contrary, it is one of America's most powerful weapons.

The conviction and sentencing of Algerian Ahmed Ressam in U.S. District Court in Seattle undercuts the Bush administration's position that "enemy combatants" cannot be tried in U.S. courts without damaging national security. Instead, the administration has insisted on establishing a shadow court system outside the reach of either Congress or this country's judiciary, a system answerable only to itself.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison for plotting to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 celebration. Then he made some remarks that merit the attention of every American:

``We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant or deny the defendant the right to counsel,'' Coughenour said. ``The message to the world from today's sentencing is that our courts have not abandoned our commitment to the ideals that set our nation apart.''

Ressam's sentencing followed a decision earlier this month by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a panel that included John Roberts, President Bush's Supreme Court nominee.

The appeals court unanimously agreed with the Bush administration that people captured in the war on terror and designated as "enemy combatants" are not protected by the Geneva Conventions and needn't be treated as prisoners of war. Nor, the court said, do these detainees have the right to be tried either by civilian courts or by military courts-martial, both of which offer fundamental protections.

The ruling has allowed the Pentagon to continue the use of military commissions to try people detained at Guantanamo, Cuba. The admini- stration insists that the commissions provide fair trials, but in nearly every case so far the commissions have ruled that detainees were properly classified as enemy combatants and can be prosecuted without being afforded the basic rights traditionally accorded prisoners of war.

For the Gitmo detainees and American citizens who have been designated as enemy combatants, that means there is no requirement that the military judges deciding their fates have legal experience. There is no requirement that defendants have access to evidence or the right to independent appeal. There are no strict standards for admissible evidence, and hearsay evidence and statements obtained under coercion are acceptable.

Contrast this systematic stripping of the basic rules of justice with the successful prosecution of Ressam. Ressam is no lightweight; he's the match of many at Guantanamo. A veteran of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, he was captured trying to cross from Canada to Washington state. He was arrested with 124 pounds of bomb-making materials. His plan: to bring in the new millennium with a cataclysmic explosion at Los Angeles International Airport.

Instead of disappearing into a legal black hole such as Guantanamo Bay, Ressam was tried and convicted of terrorist conspiracy and explosive charges. Facing up to 130 years in prison, he cooperated with authorities in the hopes of winning a reduced sentence. Coughenour characterized the information he provided as "startlingly helpful" in the case of Boston "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, and numerous other in- stances.

The government's approach to Ressam proves that U.S. courts or, at the least, standard military courts-martial are the right way to try those captured in the war on terrorism. The kangaroo courts at Guantanamo do not represent the American ideals that have long been a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Ressam case shows secret tribunals unnecessary
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 29, 2005
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