us slides away from rule of law

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    The Moussaoui nightmare
    The so-called 20th hijacker looked like a slam-dunk case for federal prosecutors. Now everything has changed.

    By Eric Boehlert

    July 11, 2003

    By now, government prosecutors hoped to have a guilty conviction already in hand for Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker" who was indicted 90 days after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Instead, the case is teetering on the brink.

    The high-profile trial of the only man charged with 9/11 crimes was supposed to be quick, clean and transparent, a shining example of how the American judicial system can rise to any challenge. Instead, the case has emerged as one giant headache for an army of prosecutors who appear stymied by a lone, paranoid al-Qaida operative who's serving as his own legal counsel. ("MIND YOUR OWN PIG BUZINESS" read a Moussaoui missive to his court-appointed counsel.) The defendant and the government are now pitted in legal battle that's taken an unexpected turn over Sixth Amendment rights, and could ultimately end up before the United States Supreme Court.

    And it all could come to a head on Monday. That's when, pressed by the trial judge, the Bush administration may feel forced to yank the case out of the civilian courts, name Moussaoui an enemy combatant, and send it to a secretive military tribunal. There, he could be detained indefinitely without legal protections given defendants in the U.S. court system. For prosecutors, the move would essentially be an admission of failure, and for the government, an admission that American courts are simply not equipped to dispense justice to al-Qaida terrorists.
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