Holder defends terror trials in civilian courts

June 16, 2011 - 9:14 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday defended the prosecution of terrorism suspects in civilian court after the top-ranking Senate Republican urged him to send two Iraqis to Guantanamo Bay rather than try them in Kentucky.

Holder criticized what he called a "rigid ideology" among political opponents working to prevent terror trials that have been successfully handled by civilian courts hundreds of times.

"Politics has no place — no place — in the impartial and effective administration of justice," Holder said in remarks prepared for delivery to the American Constitution Society's convention. "Decisions about how, where, and when to prosecute must be made by prosecutors, not politicians."

Although Holder didn't mention Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by name, his comments come two days after McConnell took to the Senate floor and urged Holder's Justice Department to send terrorism suspects Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi to Guantanamo Bay. He said a trial planned in his home state of Kentucky could risk retaliatory attacks against judges, jurors and the broader community.

The Justice Department says there have been more than 400 convictions of terrorism-related charges in civilian courts.

"Not one of these individuals has escaped custody," Holder said. "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."

But members of Congress have successfully fought Holder over the prosecution of five other terrorism suspects planned for New York City, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Obama administration bowed to the political pressure and backed off the plan, saying it would instead prosecute them before a military commission.

Holder insisted in his speech that civilian courts are "our most effective terror-fighting weapon."

"Despite this reality, we continue to see overheated rhetoric that is detached from history — and from the facts," Holder said. "We see crucial national security tools, once again, being put at risk by those who disparage the American criminal justice system, and misguidedly claim that terror suspects cannot be tried safely in our civilian courts."

Alwan and Hammadi were arrested in the United States after being admitted as refugees from Iraq in 2009. Homeland Security officials have said the men slipped through cracks in the system that have since been fixed.

They are charged in a 23-count indictment with conspiring to send weapons and money to al-Qaida in Iraq. Alwan is also charged with attacking American soldiers in Iraq. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said after their arrests, the two waived their rights to remain silent and appear quickly before a judge and were interrogated for several days to gather intelligence.

Authorities say the weapons and money from Alwan and Hammadi didn't make it to Iraq because of a tightly controlled undercover investigation. The FBI said Alwan spoke of setting roadside bombs near Bayji, Iraq from 2003 through 2006. The FBI said investigators found his fingerprints on an unexploded bomb.

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