Closed Trials Unsatisfactory

Fair trials still best for sorting guilty from innocent

The Houston Chronicle -- 18 January 1996


A Peruvian military judge concealed behind a partition and presiding over a trial that was closed to the public convicted Lori Helene Berenson, an American, of treason and sentenced her to life in prison. Peruvian citizens cheered. We in the United States should take warning.

Frustrated by terrorist attacks from the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement that have killed more than 35,000 people since 1980, Peruvians are less concerned about fair and open trials than they are about stopping the violence.

Peru's laws assume those charged with terrorism are guilty unless they prove their innocence. Trials typically last fewer than two weeks, and defense lawyers have little time to make their case.

As tempting as it may be in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Arizona train derailment and the World Trade Center bombing, the citizens of the United States must never tolerate similar moves to stamp out terrorism. The best means of protecting all citizens' rights is to guarantee that even the most miserable criminals are afforded fair trials and due process under the law.

It is not farfetched that the rights we take for granted -- the assumption of innocence until proved otherwise, the opportunity to confront accusers -- could be abridged. Only last year, President Clinton asked Congress to consider legislation that would allow the use of secret evidence to convict and deport individuals and to give federal law enforcement agencies the power to investigate and interrogate without demonstrating reasonable indications of criminal activity.

Other measures would have expanded wiretapping authority and magnified the role the military could play in law enforcement.

Measures like these might provide some comfort that America is tough on crime, but that warm feeling would fade away with the realization that the freedoms we forfeited were too high a price to pay.