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January 01, 2002

Military Tribunals: A Travesty of Justice

by Maryam Elahi

The president’s executive order establishing military tribunals to try those whom he deems to be "terrorists" is not only in violation of international human rights law, but it also flies in the face of U.S. domestic law. The U.S. Senate has ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Covenant) and implemented legislation that makes this treaty part of the "law of the land." Article 14 of the Covenant calls for full compliance with elements of transparency, fairness, and due process in all courts and tribunals.

As a lawyer working for Amnesty International, I observed numerous trials in the 1990s before military courts in Egypt and Turkey. It would be impossible to argue that any of the defendants in these courts were given the basic due process rights that are legally guaranteed under the Covenant. Defendants were often assumed guilty prior to the presentation of the evidence, judges were biased, defendants’ access to defense lawyers was limited at best, and the opportunity for appeal was nonexistent or futile. Many were subjected to the death penalty following unfair trials. This miscarriage of justice is not what the victims of September 11 deserve.

The United States must maintain transparency and fairness at all levels in trials for those accused of involvement with acts of terrorism against the interests of the United States. We owe it to ourselves, as well as to the global community—as we set an example for many nations with far less democratic traditions. It is a mistake to search back in our history for justifications for these antiquated tribunals. The United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights had not yet been adopted by the UN General Assembly at the time that Presidents Roosevelt and Lincoln established their military tribunals. The world has moved forward. The creation of an international criminal court is now closer to coming to fruition—only two dozen or so more signatures are needed to make it a reality. It is imperative that the United States support this global court, which would have jurisdiction over matters involving terrorism and provide the most appropriate forum for the trials of accused terrorists.

Most surprising and troubling is the silence that is ringing in the U.S. Congress with respect to this issue. Our government must adhere to the provisions of the Covenant and we need to know what our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., are doing to ensure that the administration lives up to its legal obligations under this treaty.

Maryam Elahi

Maryam Elahi is director of the human rights program at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. This sidebar is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Hartford Courant.