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Convened for Special Circumstances, Tribunals Have a Way of Expanding

Justice: In Peru, Egypt and elsewhere, courts set up to deal with rebellion have been broadened to address ordinary crime with swift, tough rulings.


LIMA, Peru — Few people doubted that Abimael Guzman was the most dangerous man in the country when he was brought before a specially created military court in 1992, tried and swiftly convicted by a panel of hooded judges. The founder of the Shining Path guerrilla movement had presided over bombings and massacres that terrorized Peru for more than a decade.

But the court created to try this nation's most violent rebels soon broadened its mandate. After a time, alleged drug dealers and common criminals were being tried for "aggravated terrorism" in secret courtrooms before anonymous military judges, few of whom happened to be lawyers.

"The tribunals committed flagrant abuses against human rights," said Maximo Rivera, former chief of Peru's anti-terrorist police. About 600 of the more than 4,000 civilians convicted by military judges have since been acquitted by civilian courts.

The experiences of Peru, and many other countries that have resorted to military or special courts during times of strife, offer a cautionary tale to the United States, as President Bush has authorized the use of military courts to prosecute suspected terrorists.

Los Angeles Times Saturday February 23, 2002 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction ^H
Diplock courts--A Nov. 21 story erred in reporting that Britain's so- called Diplock courts have ceased to operate. The special courts, which have no juries and permit evidence to be presented in secret in terrorism- related cases, continue to meet and consider cases in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

'Temporary' Setups Become Long-Term

In Egypt, Brazil and other countries where civilians have been tried in military tribunals for the most violent acts of terrorism, those courts have become, over time, places where less serious offenses also are prosecuted.

And in places such as Northern Ireland, "temporary" courts given special powers to deal with "extraordinary" crimes have become long-term fixtures of the legal landscape.

Sometimes, the perceived lack of fairness of such courts has helped build sympathy for the very groups they aim to crush.

"As soon as you get a military officer as a judge, the independence of the judiciary is undermined," said Neil Hicks, an attorney with Human Rights Watch who has monitored trials in Egypt.

Hicks believes that in Egypt, as in Northern Ireland, the extraordinary powers granted to prosecutors in special tribunals played into the strategy of the opposition groups by bolstering the argument that the government was arbitrary and undemocratic.

In Northern Ireland, Roman Catholic support for the Irish Republican Army grew after the British government instituted emergency measures that included special courts without juries. And in Egypt, the execution of more than 100 people by that country's military tribunals did not extinguish the appeal of an organization that would eventually become an important part of the Al Qaeda network.

"People can argue that a military judge is acting under orders," Hicks said. "They can say, 'Look, these courts are just there to find us guilty so that they can kill us.' "

All of the courts offer a swifter, tougher brand of justice, in part by denying defendants many of the rights available in ordinary trials and giving prosecutors the right to introduce secret evidence.

Under the Bush administration proposal, those convicted in the military courts could appeal the verdicts only to the president or the secretary of Defense. U.S. officials have said that security concerns make secret military courts a necessity and that any suspects brought before the tribunals would be guaranteed a fair trial.

The former U.S. official who first called for the use of military tribunals in the war on terrorism says he sees no chance that they will be expanded to domestic cases.

"The president's order limits their use to foreign nationals who are involved in an organized, armed attack on the United States. It doesn't relate in any way to potential domestic matters," said former U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, who served under the first President Bush. "These overwrought concerns about hooded judges and the like are way off base."

The legal traditions of the United States embrace the rights of the accused to a much greater extent than those of Peru, Egypt and most other places that have tried civilians in military courts.

Spain established a military court to try Basque terrorists during the waning days of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s but then quickly disbanded it, even though political violence remains.

In the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority has been widely condemned for military and state security trials that often amount to little more than summary executions. In January, two Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel were tried, convicted and executed in less than two days.

Peru's military tribunals took on especially dark, Kafkaesque dimensions before being phased out in the late 1990s. Defense attorneys were sometimes brought into court in blindfolds, then given only minutes to argue on behalf of their clients before being hustled out--once again blindfolded--and dropped off on a Lima street corner.

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