Should terrorism suspects have the same civil liberties as non-terrorism suspects?
U.S lawyer General Eric Holder Jr. doesn’t think so, as he attempts to persuade a federal judge in Boston not to release to an accused terrorist’s lawyers material that, if disclosed, could “cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”
The case involves 28-year-old Tarek Mehanna, a former pharmacist who graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury High School in 2000, who has been charged with plotting to kill U.S soldiers in Iraq on behalf of al-Qaeda, as well as planning to open fire in a local shopping mall.
The case has brought into question the challenges that nations face in convicting those involved in ideologically motivated violence without infringing civil liberties and political freedoms of regular citizens.
In Mehenna’s case, attorney Eric Holder stated to U.S District Court Judge George O’Toole Jr. that:
“FISA materials contain sensitive and classified information concerning the United States intelligence sources and methods and other information related to efforts of the United States to conduct counterterrorism investigations.”
Mehanna’s lawyer, Janice Bassil, is pushing for the “top secret” material to be released. She asserted, “We don’t even know what the (FISA) evidence is.”
If convicted, her client faces life imprisonment. In her arguments to the court, Bassil continued:
“In these cases, where there are accusations of terrorism, civil liberties and constitutional rights kind of go out the window. They are clearly not recognised and are often ignored.”
A Terrorist Threat or a Civil Liberties Threat?
Whilst acts of terrorism must be prevented when possible and those involved with endangering the lives of innocent civilians must be prosecuted, should authorities use the threat of “international terrorism” to violate basic civil rights?
Does violating civil liberties have any gains in the fight against terrorism? And if so, where does the line get drawn?
In recent years, there have been repeated cases of civil liberties being “thrown out of the window” as a response to the threat of terrorism, particularly in the U.S, which is typically a prime target for international terrorism.
This erosion of civil rights has naturally produced numerous acts of anti-Muslim and Arab discrimination throughout the country.
The counter-terrorism bill that primarily focuses on international terrorism was enacted shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That bombing – which killed 168 people and injured 680 – was the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until 9/11.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings, many politicians and lawmakers quickly suggested that “foreign terrorists” were responsible, leading to more than 200 attacks on Muslims and immigrants living in the U.S.
Regardless of the fact that the bombings in 1995 were carried out by a native American citizen and not international terrorists, Congress enacted a counter-terrorism bill that focused predominantly on international terrorism.
Whilst the counter-terrorism bill was before Congress, many civil liberty organizations joined forces and put constitutional questions on the agenda, namely that the act would threaten some of the most basic civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and court proceedings.
16 years later, the concerns of the civil rights groups are more prevalent than ever, evidenced in the case of terrorist suspect Tarek Mehanna.
Erosion of Civil Liberties in the UK
Of course, the erosion of civil liberties in the fight against terror is far from being a challenge solely afflicting American soil.
In the UK, where acts of terrorism have also been targeted, civil liberties and controlling terrorist suspects has been a concern of the coalition government.
When the coalition was formed, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties publicised their commitment to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government.”
In July 2010, at the insistence of the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, a review of counter-terrorism laws took place, which included an “independent insight” of the Control Orders, a law introduced in 2005 to restrict the liberty of terrorist suspects who could be neither deported or prosecuted.
One outcome of the “independent insight” into counter-terrorism laws was the scaling back of the pre-charge detention of terrorism suspects from 28 days to 14.
The scale back contrasts significantly with the US, where pre-charged detainees can be held for significantly longer periods, such as in the case of Tarek Mehanna, who has been held without bail in solitary confinement since his 2009 indictment.
In the words of Kamal Nawash, who was general legal counsel for the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee from 1998 to 2000 and is now partner in the law company Hanania & Nawash in Washington, keeping material concealed in court is an “obnoxious practice, so unfair that in any ordinary litigation context, its unconstitutionality is manifest.” Nawash asserted to reporters:
“The record of our nation’s response to the threat of terrorism, especially in the last ten years, is one of repeated attacks on the civil liberties of certain vulnerable communities, without any gains in the fight against terrorism.”
Whilst terrorism is a phenomenon that horrifies many of the world’s nations – and these nations have the right to fight violence against its civilians – that fight should surely be done without infringement on civil liberties, especially since these erosions seem to be having no positive impact in the fight against terrorism.
In fact, erosion to Civil Liberties aid terrorists by producing discontent and animosity of citizens toward the government.
References & Image Credits:TopSecretWriters.com