The speed with which US federal prosecutors have filed charges against the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings is especially welcome in that it has laid to rest suggestions that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev be transferred to the military as an “enemy combatant” and perhaps even tried before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.
Mr Tsarnaev is a US citizen. He was captured and arrested by the FBI. He may have been an enemy combatant in the sense that he and his brother were intent on striking a bloody blow against America. But there is, as yet, no evidence they were connected to al-Qa’ida or any other foreign terrorist organisation – the required condition for Tsarnaev to be held by the military, perhaps extra-territorially at the infamous prison for suspected foreign terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
In this context, the appalling state of affairs at Guantanamo – where at least 50 of the 166 detainees are on hunger strike, and where half have been cleared for release but are left to rot nonetheless – is not the relevant factor. Even in its intended role as a forum for military justice, the prison has failed: during its 11-year life, only three inmates have been tried and convicted – and the architect of the 9/11 plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is not among them.
By contrast, the civil courts – where President Obama sought to have Mohammed tried, only to be thwarted by Congress – have dealt competently with several high-profile cases. These include John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured in Afghanistan in 2001, the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and Zacarias Moussaoui, a would-be terrorist with certain links to al-Qa’ida.
There is no reason why Tsarnaev should not be questioned by military and CIA interrogators for intelligence purposes while he awaits trial. But he is an American, accused of committing a heinous crime against his fellow citizens, and a normal court of criminal justice is where he should be tried.