MIAMI (Reuters) - Guantanamo prisoners could be successfully tried in the United States because an overwhelming number of terrorism cases in U.S. courts since the September 11 attacks have led to convictions, a study released Thursday said.
Moreover, the trials did not leak national secrets or endanger surrounding communities, Human Rights First said in report issued amid a national debate over how to prosecute foreign terrorism suspects held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Barack Obama, who ordered the Guantanamo prison shut down by January, has said he prefers trying cases in the U.S. district courts but that some might have to be tried in a revamped version of the Guantanamo military tribunals that have completed only three cases in more than seven years.
Critics argue that trying Guantanamo prisoners in the U.S. courts would expose classified information, hamstring prosecutors, endanger neighboring communities and coddle the suspects by granting them additional rights.
The study, conducted by former federal prosecutors for the rights group, analyzed 119 U.S. court cases filed since September 2001 against 289 people accused of terrorism-related crimes and associated with al Qaeda or other Islamist extremist groups.
Of the 214 defendants whose cases were resolved, 195 -- 91 percent -- were convicted. Many of the acquitted still did not walk free because the government subsequently brought new charges against them or detained them for immigration violations, said the study titled "In Pursuit of Justice."
'EFFECTIVE AND FAIR'
Among the 171 who had been sentenced, 151 got prison terms and 20 were put on probation or sentenced to time already served. The average sentence was 8.4 years, and 11 got life terms, said the study by Human Rights First, a U.S.-based nonprofit group that promotes international freedoms.
It concluded that the existing court system is up to the task of trying terrorism cases and there is no need to create new Guantanamo tribunals or a new national security court, as some have proposed.
"While new systems have failed and new 'fixes' have been floated, the criminal justice system has continued to build on its long record of being an effective and fair tool for incapacitating terrorists," it said.
The authors said the Classified Information Procedures Act, which protects secret information used as evidence, appears to be working because they could find no instance where there was a substantial leak of sensitive information as a result of terrorism prosecutions.
Nor had interrogation or criminal prosecution in the studied cases been hampered by the Miranda rule, which requires that suspects be told their words could be use as evidence against them and that they are entitled to lawyers before questioning.
The courts have ruled that the warning is not required in certain circumstances involving interrogation by foreign officials, and can be applied flexibly "to accommodate the exigencies of local conditions," the study noted in an apparent reference to battlefield captures.
The study said a rash of recent proposals by U.S. elected officials trying to keep Guantanamo prisoners from being incarcerated in their communities seemed to be based more on fear than fact.
"The United States justice system has a long and successful history of prosecuting suspected terrorists by generally achieving just results without causing danger to the nation's or local communities' safety and security," it said.
(Editing by Jim Loney and Xavier Briand)