ACLU Troubled by Reports that Potentially Secret Military Tribunals Could Place Life or Death of Defendant Solely in Hands of President

March 20, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today said it was deeply troubled by media reports that the military tribunals ordered last year by the President would allow the executive branch sole authority over the imposition of the death penalty and could easily be held in secret.

“Counter to assertions by the President and Secretary of Defense, these tribunals appear starkly different from regular courts-martial,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “If, in fact, they will allow no appeal to a civilian body independent of the executive branch – putting the lives of defendants solely in the hands of the President – then they will not respect basic American, and international, ideals of fairness and justice.”

The ACLU’s comments were sparked by media reports that Department of Defense regulations, which are expected to be released this week and are necessary to define the scope of the Presidential order authorizing the tribunals, will not allow defendants to appeal their sentences, even death sentences, to an civilian body independent of the executive branch. Also troubling are reports that the tribunals could be classified and held in secret solely at the discretion of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld or President Bush.

In January, the ACLU called on Rumsfeld to guarantee access to effective counsel of one’s choosing, assure the presumption of innocence, adhere to the reasonable doubt standard and ensure that the tribunals be public.

On the question of the death penalty, the ACLU urged the Department to prohibit the death penalty as a form of punishment available under the tribunals, or in the alternative, to require that anyone facing a possible death sentence be tried in Article III courts, which provide all the due process protections available under federal law and are presided over by judges who are insulated from political or military command influence.

“For the United States to maintain any moral authority in its fight against terrorism, these military tribunals – if they are used at all – must be implemented in accordance with core American legal and social values,” Edgar said. “The regulations as it appears they now stand would injure American justice and deflate much of our moral standing.”

The ACLU’s Recommendations on the Department of Defense Guidelines can be found at:

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