Thursday, June 16, 2011

Attorney General Holder defends terrorism trial plans

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday defended the Obama administration's use of criminal courts to try terrorism suspects after a renewed call to send them to military trials at the naval base in Cuba.

Republicans and even some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats have sought to keep open the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and forced the administration to use military courts for the most significant terrorism suspects, those accused of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Holder offered a rebuttal backing traditional criminal trials for terrorism suspects, describing the backlash as "overheated rhetoric that is detached from history and from the facts."

Those who back military trials for terrorism suspects have argued that the accused should not receive full U.S. legal rights and the cities where such trials are held could become targets for attacks, pointing to Guantanamo as the best venue.

"Not one of these individuals has escaped custody. Not one of the judicial districts involved has suffered retaliatory attacks. And not one of these terrorists arrested on American soil has been tried by a military commission," Holder told the American Constitution Society, a liberal-leaning group.

A year ago before a similar audience Holder was defending both military and civilian courts for such cases.

The problem of how to arrest and prosecute terrorism suspects has dogged Obama for the last two years. Congress has blocked attempts to close the Guantanamo prison by choking off funds for transfers to U.S. soil for any reason, including prosecution.

Holder's comments follow a call by the top Senate Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for the administration to transfer two Iraqi men arrested last month in Kentucky to military custody at Guantanamo for prosecution.

"They should be hunted and captured, detained and interrogated, and tried away from civilian populations according to the laws of war," McConnell said on Tuesday.

The two were accused in federal court of trying to help al Qaeda militants in their home country. One of them was also charged with taking part in roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops.

Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi were charged in a 23-count indictment for allegedly trying to provide support and weapons to an al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, in a sting operation subsequently run by U.S. authorities.

They entered the United States in 2009 after receiving refugee status and have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Holder tried to send the five men accused of the September 11 attacks, including self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to federal court in New York, but after pressure he had to reverse his decision, so they will be tried before a military court at Guantanamo.

Holder acknowledged those setbacks, but told the group: "There is, quite simply, no more powerful tool than our civilian court system."