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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

54% Back Military Tribunals for Terrorists over U.S. Courts

Most Americans believe suspected terrorists should be tried by military tribunals rather than in U.S. courts, as the first such trial began this week at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

Seventy-one percent (71%) say the suspects should not be given the rights U.S. citizens have in court, while only 18% think they should, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national survey.

While some politicians, foreign officials and non-government groups like Amnesty International argue that the Bush administration is acting outside of the law in its treatment of these terrorist suspects, just 30% of Americans believe they should have access to U.S. courts, as opposed to 54% who favor the special military trials.

Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59%) also say the special prison camp for terrorists at Guantanamo, where the United States now detains 280 inmates, should not be closed. Twenty-six percent (26%) believe it should be.

Republicans tend to strongly support the status quo, while Democrats are more divided or unsure. Unaffiliated voters generally fall in between.

In a separate survey Rasmussen Reports finds that voters trust Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama more than John McCain on most issues, but the Republican candidate has a solid lead in voters' minds on national security issues.

Americans in record numbers also are becoming increasingly confident that the United States and its allies are winning the war on terror.

The trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was purportedly Osama bin Laden's driver, began on Monday. Captured in Afghanistan in November 2001, he is accused of helping the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks escape capture several times and of transporting weapons for al Qaeda. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. Hamdan has pleaded not guilty.

Unlike trials in U.S. courts, the tribunals allow the use of some hearsay evidence and evidence forced from prisoners. The judge and jurors, not just lawyers, can question witnesses, and conviction can be obtained by a two-thirds vote of the six military officers on the tribunal, rather than requiring a unanimous jury as in a court trial.

Only 48% say they are following stories about the Hamdan trial, while 51% say they are not. Just over half (51%) correctly identified the defendant.

Both major presidential candidates promise to close the Guantanamo camp, saying it hurts America's relationships with other countries.

But when the U.S. Supreme Court last month gave terrorism suspects in the camp the right to sue in U.S. courts for their release, Obama praised the ruling while McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." The Bush administration is now prodding Congress to clear up some of the legal issues raised by the high court ruling.

Eighty percent (80%) of Republicans are opposed to closing the Guantanamo facility, a view shared by 42% of Democrats and 60% of unaffiliated voters. Nearly as many Democrats (39%) believe it should be closed, as do 9% of GOP voters and 25% of unaffiliateds.

McCain has no problem continuing the military tribunals for terrorists, while Obama's position remains unclear, despite repeated questions from the media.

Again, Republicans overwhelmingly support the military tribunals while Democrats are divided. Seventy-seven percent (77%) of GOP voters back the tribunals, along with 39% of Democrats and 52% of unaffiliated voters. Slightly more Democrats (43%) think the terrorist suspects should be tried in U.S. courts, but only 14% of Republicans and 29% of unaffiliateds concur.

Similarly, only 5% of Republicans think the suspects should be given the rights of U.S. citizens in court, as opposed to 30% of Democrats. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of GOP voters and 55% of Democrats disagree. Among unaffiliated voters, 12% favor treating them like U.S. citizens, but 75% are opposed.

The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll shows Obama and McCain remain in a competitive race for the White House.

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This national survey of 1,000 Likely Voters was conducted by Rasmussen Reports July 22, 2008. The margin of sampling error for each survey is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence.


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