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How Ashcroft Coerces Guilty Pleas in Terror Cases


The Washington Post reported on the tragedy and travesty of the convictions of six men in Lackawanna, New York, the so-called “Lackawanna Six.” John Ashcroft’s prosecutors charged the men with conspiring to attend an al-Qaeda terrorist camp. Does that sound a little far-fetched to you? Like two lovers conspiring to have an illicit affair that is never consummated? Or two stock brokers talking about how they might pull off some scam?

The men were never charged with any act of terrorism. They were nailed for briefly attending a training camp for jihadists in Afghanistan. They didn’t stay long, and only one of the had any evidence that suggested he might engage in terrorism. Five of the six were born in Lackawanna, and all had gone to school there and continued to live there as adults.

The Justice Department publicly condemned the men as operating a terrorist cell in Lackawanna, a charge that did not stick. Indeed, the conspiracy charge itself was so weak that as I followed the case, I was hoping for a win to put Ashcroft in his place.

But that did not happen. All six pled guilty and will serve an average of nine years in prison. Their lawyers are sick about it, the men and their families resigned to their fates. Why did they plead?

Simply, because they knew that if they did not plead guilty, and if the government’s case ran into trouble (as it seemed it would), the prosecutors would do as the prosecutors in the Zacarias Moussaoui case may do; ask President Bush to declare the men enemy combatants, and remand them to a military jail somewhere where they can, under current court decisions, stay for the rest of their lives–without being charged or tried. Or they could be charged, tried, and perhaps executed by a military tribunal, as the Pentagon is preparing to do with enemy combatants seized from overseas and detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Their defense began to unravel when the two witnesses capable of testifying about their lack of involvement in al-Qaeda could not be produced–one was thought to be held in Guantanamo, but the government refused to admit he was there. The other was killed by the US in a car bombing in Yemen. Coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not. But convenient for the prosecution, regardless.

The men were not willing to resist disappearing into the black hole reserved for enemy combatants, and who could blame them? For one federal court of appeals, the 4th Circuit in Richmond, ruled that once Bush declares someone an enemy combatant, the judiciary must not look behind the designation and question its propreity or credibility. That’s right, no meaningful judicial review.

The prosecutors may just as well have put a gun to the men’s heads and threatened to kill them on the spot if they did not plead.

That is not what prosecutors are supposed to do. They are supposed to charge fairly and uphold the rule of law. Their duty is not to get convictions but to do justice. Funny, what the Lackawanna prosecutors called justice looks more like that of China, Pakistan, and the Sudan, than that required under the Constitution of the United States.

But that was the first Constitution, the one before the Constitution according to Bush, Ashcroft, and Rumsfeld.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at:


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