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The secret of military tribunals: they work

by Marc Becker
December 12, 2001

President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are proposing to dispose of the inconveniences of constitutional niceties and implement military tribunals in order to try, convict and dispose of foreigners who are accused of terrorism or of harboring terrorists.

This is not, of course, the first time that an executive leader has attempted to circumvent legal structures designed to protect peoples' civil rights in order to defend alleged threats to a country's perceived national defense. It seems as if the Bush administration is taking its cues from the South American country of Peru. Facing the brutal Shining Path guerrilla insurgency that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, mostly innocent civilians caught between the guerrillas and the country's military, in the early 1990s president Alberto Fujimori implemented military tribunals to try suspected terrorists. Conviction rates for politically motivated actions immediately jumped from 10 to 97 percent. In order to apprehend a few people who were perceived as threats to society many innocent people also had to pay with their freedoms and lives.

This incredibly high conviction rate was only achieved through blatant violations of Peruvian and international standards of due process. This included using panels of hooded judges examining secret evidence that accused persons were not allowed to access. The prosecution often set the ground rules in the court room, and the tribunals routinely denied peoples' access to lawyers. After all, as Ronald Reagan once stated, why had they been arrested if they were not guilty?

Take, for example, the case of U.S. citizen Lori Berenson, a human rights activist, free-lance journalist, and political prisoner in Peru. Anti-terrorism police arrested Lori on November 30, 1995, accusing her of leading the revolutionary guerrilla group, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Lori was not involved with the MRTA, but her true crime was a deep commitment to social justice and a desire to help bring an end to poverty and suffering. Support for the plight of the poor made her a threat to the wealthy elite who benefitted from this economic injustice.

Lori did not stand a chance of proving her innocence in front of the military tribunal that sentenced her to life in prison. The tribunal, like those proposed to deal with similar inconvenient foreigners in the United States, did not notify her of the charges she was facing and restricted her access to legal counsel. Five years later after a sustained international campaign (see the Supreme Military Council of Peru finally admitted that it lacked any evidence to support the charges against Lori and nullified her conviction. Rather than releasing her, the case was remanded to a civilian terrorism court which resentenced her to twenty years in prison. According to the U.S. State Department, this court "fails to meet international standards of openness, fairness, and due process." Lori's new trial included more due process violations, judicial bias and prejudgment (considered by the public, press, and judges to be guilty before evidence was presented), and the use of tainted and fabricated evidence.

The same violations of openness, fairness, and due process that the U.S. State Department has criticized in military tribunals in other countries are what Bush and Ashcroft now propose to implement in the United States. In the process innocent people like Lori Berenson will inevitably be convicted, and our civil rights will be trampled. Opposition to these military tribunals is not only a defense of the rights of the guilty (which Ashcroft would have us forget is critical in a constitutional democracy), but also the interests of the innocent who will be caught up in these sweeping dragnets. Many people opposed Ashcroft's nomination to the position of Attorney General because of his historic lack of support for civil rights, and his position on military tribunals just proves this point.

The Bush administration is using the September 11 attacks, much like Peru used the Shining Path insurgency, as a cover to implement neo-liberal policies designed to make the rich richer and the rest of us much, much poorer. Apparently, as in Peru, the temptation to implement military tribunals to crack down on domestic and international dissent is proving to be just too tempting. The bitter irony is that military tribunals do exactly what they are intended to do–they take away our ability to protest the loss of our freedoms and civil liberties and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the elite.

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