Donate Today!

July 24, 2009
11:31 AM

CONTACT: Human Rights First

Brenda Bowser Soder

New Report Finds Federal Courts Best Equipped to Handle Complex Terrorism Cases

Report Comes as House Armed Services Committee Hearing Takes on Reform of Military Commissions Act, Detainee Policy

WASHINGTON - July 24 - Just one day after it released a report finding that U.S. federal courts are the best venue for handling complex terrorism cases, Human Rights First is urging the House Armed Services Committee to abandon the use of military commissions to prosecute suspected terrorists, warning that the system is at odds with the Constitution, the laws of war, and American values. The call came today as the full committee conducted a hearing on reforming the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and detainee policy.

"Politicians have spent eight years trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to prosecuting terrorism and that approach has failed miserably. This report makes clear that the best way forward is to rely on our existing legal system. Its track record of successfully prosecuting criminals, safeguarding national security, and addressing the complex legal issues of our time is unmatched," said Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First's Chief Executive Officer.

Yesterday, Human Rights First released In Pursuit of Justice: Prosecuting Terrorism Cases in the Federal Court - 2009 Update and Recent Developments, a report that challenges the arguments of those who favor new, un-tested legal regimes for terrorism suspects such as “national security courts,” or administrative detention without trial. The new report is a comprehensive, fact-based assessment of the capability of federal courts to handle terrorism cases. Written by former federal prosecutors Richard B. Zabel and James J. Benjamin Jr.—now partners at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP— the report issued yesterday by Human Rights First is the most thorough examination to date of federal prosecution of those who are “associated—organizationally, financially, or ideologically—with Islamist extremist terrorist groups like al Qaeda.” It also shines new light on America’s ability to safely detain terrorism suspects within the federal prison system and the resources needed to handle these cases.

The report offers an exhaustive analysis of a newly compiled, comprehensive database of federal terrorism prosecutions and relevant federal laws through May 2009. It builds on a 2008 white paper on the topic, also released by Human Rights First. Together, these reports examine 119 international terrorism cases with 289 defendants prosecuted in the existing criminal justice system, ranging from epic mega-trials, including those involving the first attack on the World Trade Center (1993) and the East African embassy bombings (1998), to individual, pre-emptive prosecutions focused on prevention. Of the 214 defendants whose cases were resolved as of June 2, 2009 (charges against 75 defendants were still pending) 195 were convicted either by verdict or by a guilty plea. This is a conviction rate of 91.121%, a slight increase over the 90.625% conviction rate reported in May of 2008.

Human Rights First also noted the existence of widespread international skepticism about the United States’ use of military commissions and stated that continuing to prosecute terrorist suspects using this model will undermine President Obama’s ongoing efforts to ‘enlist the power of our fundamental values.’

“This report shows that there is no need to abandon our federal court system in order to successfully prosecute terrorism suspects,” said Human Rights First International Legal Director Gabor Rona. “It is dangerous to downplay the very real and drastic consequences of departures from long-standing norms of American justice, and it is very troubling that politics – not smart policy - has led some to exaggerate the challenges that terrorism cases present to the traditional criminal justice system.”

For more information about In Pursuit of Justice: Prosecuting Terrorism Cases in the Federal Court –2009 Update and Recent Developments, visit

Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.

Comments are closed

1 Comment so far

Show All


Note: Disqus 2012 is best viewed on an up to date browser. Click here for information. Instructions for how to sign up to comment can be viewed here. Our Comment Policy can be viewed here. Please follow the guidelines. Note to Readers: Spam Filter May Capture Legitimate Comments...