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Bin Laden's son-in-law trial reignites debate

Should terrorism suspects be tried in a courtroom or a military tribunal?
Last modified: 11 Mar 2013 15:59
Abu Ghaith has been captured and brought to New York City for trial

The presence of Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law in a New York courtroom has reignited the debate in the US over where to try terrorism suspects: a courtroom or a military tribunal.

His name is Sulaiman Abu Ghaith and he is charged with conspiring to kill US nationals. He was taken into US custody by the FBI in Jordan.

There are differing accounts of exactly how he got there and how much of a player he was in al-Qaeda, as well as differing opinions about which venue better serves American security interests.

"Sulaiman Abu Ghaith held a key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge George Venizelos said in the written statement released by the Justice Department.

"He used his position to persuade others to swear loyalty to al-Qaeda’s murderous cause."

US Attorney General Eric Holder said the arrest demonstrated the US resolve to bring its enemies to justice.

But it is not the kind of justice preferred by Republicans who blocked President Barack Obama from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility by denying him the necessary funding.

"We believe firmly that Gitmo, there is no substitute for it that Congress will agree upon," said Republican Senator Lindsay Graham from South Carolina.

"It is the right place to put an enemy combatant for interrogation."

Senator Graham was just one of several Republicans to complain about the Obama Administration’s end run around Congress in bringing Ghayth to the US mainland. They don’t think enemy combatants deserve the same rights as American citizens, rights that could stand in the way of intelligence gathering.

Iran connection

US officials are especially interested in what Abu Ghaith can tell them about Iran, where he reportedly lived under house arrest beginning in 2002, and the country’s relationship with Iran.

Ghaith is not accused of orchestrating or carrying out any attacks against Americans. He can be seen on video standing next to Osama Bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on September 12, 2001 - the day after the twin towers fell - calling on "the nation of Islam" to do battle against "the Jews, the Christians and the Americans."

In other recorded statements he advised Muslims, children, and opponents of the US "not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises."

What critics failed to acknowledge, however, is that cases tried in Guantanamo involving charges of conspiracy, as well as material support for terrorism, are on increasingly shaky legal ground. Neither charge is recognised under international laws of war.

Last year, a federal appeals court  threw out the conviction on material support charges of Salim Hamdan, a man from Yemen who served as Bin Laden’s driver and body guard.

Another Yemeni, Ali al Bahlul, is currently challenging the validity of his 2008 convictions on material support and conspiracy charges before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He too is accused of being a propagandist for al-Qaeda.

"The military commissions themselves are in trouble," said Karen J Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security. 

"It's going to be a problem going forward with the Guantanamo trials, it already is. So the question is why not just put them in federal courts?"

Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks, and the four co-defendants  currently on trial at Guantanamo are charged with conspiracy – among others counts.

Unlike KSM, Abu Ghaith was not subjected to so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding which could be used as grounds to challenge evidence in court.

He is being held without bail in a New York prison pending his trial. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.