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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Op-ed: We must not abandon our legal system in response to terrorism

A military court convicted and sentenced Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, this past week in connection with terrorist activities.

Hamdan was charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism, but he was acquitted of the conspiracy charge.

The court believed he didn’t know about plans for the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States, but by driving and hiding bin Laden, he provided support for terrorism. The sentence, coupled with time served, could mean that Hamdan would be released by December this year, as he has been held at Guantanamo Bay by our government since 2003.

While this trial might not be the end of the legal road for Hamdan, it does represent an important milestone in the nation’s war on terror. It’s a milestone, however, that the nation passed before, long ago.

In this country, we don’t lock away people indefinitely without due process, trial and conviction.

If someone is suspected of a crime, we investigate, gather evidence, arrest, charge, try, convict or acquit, and sentence or release.

For too long the nation has held people in limbo at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in secret prisons overseas.

This trial, before a six-member military panel, was seen by some as outside the bounds of our accepted and tested legal system, and it was. However, it did permit the hearing of evidence, permitted the accused to mount a defense, and it still provides the means to appeal to civilian courts and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court.

A concern is the length of time that it took to reach this juncture, and the fact that the Bush administration contends that the court’s sentence doesn’t make any difference — it can still hold Hamdan indefinitely as an enemy combatant as long as the war on terror continues.

Past wars have caused other presidents to take steps that were later regretted. The internment of Japanese Americans is one example.

We also will regret holding people without charge, or without trial, then continuing to hold them regardless of trial outcome.

As a nation, we must put more faith in the rule of law. Unlawful acts should be prosecuted, but we should not prosecute suspected acts that cannot be proven because of a lack evidence and thoughts that don’t lead to acts.

Judicial standards carved out over more than 200 years are worth protecting, not abandoning in moments of panic. [Link]

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