Two years after he promised to shut down the military detention facility of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, US President Barack Obama has decided to resume, reluctantly, the trials of suspected terrorists under the controversial military commissions system.
The decision, made on Monday, comes after agonizing debates on what to do with the detainees, an integral part of the problem. Obama’s first choice was to have this group tried in the regular justice delivery system: open trial by jury in a court presided by a civil judge. The military commissions system—where a military official presides over the trial, the jury process is diluted and all evidence is not shown to the defendants—came under strong criticism. In a 2006 case,Hamdan vs Rumsfeld, the US Supreme Court held military commissions to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions (on humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war) and certain US laws.
The issue boiled down to the reluctance of states in the US to accept these detainees for regular trials. In a charged political environment, few politicians were willing to support their transportation and detention in mainland US. This, it seems, finally defeated Obama’s attempt to end the military trials.
Beyond the politics of the case is a bigger question: in a world where disruptive technologies enable terrorists to act at will and governments are expected to play by rules, can terrorists be ever brought to justice by “normal” procedures? The matter is not only of American interest. In India, it took prosecutors and courts nearly 18 months to convict Ajmal Kasab, a terrorist against whom evidence was very strong. The appeals process in his case is still on. In cases where evidence can’t be gathered to normal standards—as the situation is mostly in India—terrorists can escape on procedural grounds.
The choices are not simple. Either radically simplified procedures to try terrorists have to be found, or hate ideologies— whatever their persuasion— have to be neutered if the tide of terrorism is to be stemmed. One could say there is considerable room between those extremes: sound administration, much better law enforcement and sound evidence gathering can do much. On careful thinking, this does not appear to be simple. The problem is there for all to see, better and effective choices need to be made if terrorism is to be even contained, let alone eliminated.
Can terrorism be ended ever? Tell us at email@example.com