The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
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


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

"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

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.