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In scale and drama, it would be like no other trial the United States has ever seen: Osama bin Laden, in U.S. custody, facing more than 5,000 counts of murder. Where would he be tried? By whom? Would he face the death penalty? Whether it happens tomorrow or a decade from now, the Bush administration already is considering the problems that a captured bin Laden and other suspected terrorists could cause, Justice Department officials say. It’s not just a matter of what the United States might prefer, some experts said. There are a maze of international laws, diplomatic snares and public pressures that would come to bear. And the Bush administration also must face the more imminent question of how to gain custody of the dozens of suspected terrorists already captured by countries across the globe. Germany, France and England all have laws against extraditing suspects to countries where they might face the death penalty. Diane Orentlicher, a professor and war criminal researcher at American University, is among those trying to map out the possibilities. She says the United States would be on solid legal ground to prosecute bin Laden in a U.S. court. “International law clearly states that a nation can prosecute crimes that have been committed in its own territory, even if the suspects were out of the country when the crime was committed,” Orentlicher said. “If we catch him, we can prosecute him.” Once caught, there would be a number of options open to U.S. Attorneys. “One possibility is to prosecute (bin Laden) here in a federal court, just like any other criminal and charge him with 5,000 counts of murder,” Orentlicher said. “The United States could also prosecute him under federal law in a military court, as a war criminal.” After the invasion of Panama by U.S. troops in 1989, deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was convicted in federal court in Miami of money laundering and drug trafficking charges. Treating bin Laden as a war criminal would give the United States greater latitude in deciding who would rule over the proceedings. New York attorney Victor St. John, an expert in military law, said: “A military court would probably have more control over things like media coverage and location. There is certainly a greater sense of security and formality that might keep things from dissolving into a circus.” In either scenario, bin Laden would retain all of the rights to legal representation and a trial by jury. A high-ranking Justice Department official said the United States was looking at both options. “We would be ready to deal with bin Laden if he were captured tomorrow, but we are going to great lengths to study and research the best methods for bringing him to justice,” said the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity. The official said the Justice Department is polling outside experts as well as looking at the way other war criminals have been handled. As for extraditing suspects from nations that prohibit capital punishment, the United States in the past has circumvented such laws by agreeing not to seek the death penalty. Such an agreement might be difficult to make in the current political climate, said Dean Leonard, a lawyer and death penalty researcher at Harvard University. “The public pressure for these suspects to be put to death will probably be overwhelming and considering the Bush administration’s support of capital punishment, I would have to believe it would be a top priority,” Leonard said. In dealing with bin Laden and other suspected terrorists, the United States must also satisfy the international community, especially Muslim allies, that any trials are fair. Some critics are already calling for a trial outside the United States, held by a United Nations-sanctioned tribunal. “Inevitably, if America captures bin Laden there will be an outcry to let him be handled by the U.N.,” said Aljid Darah, an attorney who works with the Arab American Institute. “How could you possibly argue that he could get a fair trial in the United States. It would basically amount to a hanging — with a mock trial held just for show.” In recent times, war criminals often have been handled by U.N. panels. When Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, he was put in the custody of a special U.N. tribunal charged with prosecuting war crimes in the Baltics. Another tribunal based in Tanzania is charged with trying suspects in the genocide and mass murders committed in Rwanda. But using a U.N. tribunal probably would be an unattractive option for federal prosecutors. It would be difficult not to compromise U.S. intelligence assets employed during the investigation. It also would be impossible for any of the suspects to receive the death penalty since the United Nations does not sanction capital punishment. The likelihood of a lengthy, high-publicity trial in the United States makes some former intelligence officials say the Bush administration will work in private to make sure it is never necessary. “Bush said we want bin Laden, dead or alive,” ex-CIA official Brent Michaels observed. “The truth is, we’ll take him alive, but we would rather have him dead. I think we will try to avoid a trial at all costs.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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