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Projects to Establish a System of Civic Oversight of the Government:
People’s Legal Participation and Power to Check the Government and Its Authority

Hiroshi Fukurai
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This paper proposes the establishment of the transcommunal alliance among cross-national grassroots organizations that promote the system of civic legal participation and the establishment of popular oversight of our governments. French legal philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once said that people’s responsibility places jury service in a special role of ensuring popular oversight of the judicial and governmental process. “The institution of the jury raises the people itself or at least a class of citizens, to the bench of judicial authority [and] invests the people … with the direction of society,” his critical work on the American democracy in 1831 once declared.1

The historic political reason for insisting on lay participation is that it offers an important popular check on judicial and political power of the government. The. jury’s role as popular oversight of the government becomes especially important when a group of citizens were accused of committing serious crimes against their own government. After 9/11 and the passages of the 2001 Patriot Act in the U.S. and similar anti-terrorism measures in other nations in the world, serious terrorism charges have been brought against their citizens, political dissidents, and civic activists. In Australia, for instance, after the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2002, two separate juries examined charges of terrorism. In Australia’s first ever terrorism trial in 2005, the all-citizen jury acquitted Zeky Mallah, 21 year old supermarket worker, of terrorist charges of preparing to storm government offices and shoot officers in a supposed suicide mission.2 In the second highly controversial trial, in which the only government’s evidence was defendant’s confession extracted at a Pakistani military prison, the jury found Joseph Thomas guilty of charges for intentionally receiving funds from al-Qaeda. However, soon after the verdict, the appeal’s court reversed all of his convictions because it determined his coerced confession at a foreign prison to be inadmissible.3

In Russia, after the passage of the anti-terrorism act in 2004 following the Beslan school attack in which more than 330 child hostages died, the all-citizen jury acquitted three suspected terrorists of the charges of a gas pipeline explosion in the Republic of Tatarstan in September 2005.4 Two of the defendants, who were among seven Russians released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2004, claimed that they were tortured while transferred and detained in Russia. They criticized the government of false charges of extremism without evidence.5 Another jury acquitted four men of terrorist charges for the murder of the minister for national policy, in which only evidence used to implicate defendants consisted solely of confessions extracted under torture.6 In other high profile “terrorism” cases of the 2001 bombing of the Astrakhan city market and the December 2004 attack on the headquarters of the anti-drug enforcement agency in Kabardino-Balkaria, the all-citizen jury also acquitted all defendants of the terrorist charges.7

In New Zealand, after the passage of the Suppression of Terrorism Act in 2002, the government also brought terrorism charges against their citizens. In one of celebrated trials in 2006, the all-citizen jury acquitted a freelance journalist and political activist Timonthy Selwyn of a seditious conspiracy. The government evidence included a political pamphlet, in which the defendant called for “like minded New Zealanders to [commit] their own acts of civil disobedience [against governmental oppression].”8 The jurors did not accept the governmental arguments and returned the verdict of not-guilty.

In the United States, all-citizen juries also tried suspected terrorists. In December 2005, a Florida jury acquitted former University of South Florida Professor Sami Al-Arian of providing political and economic support to terrorists and the conspiracy to commit murder abroad, money laundering, and obstruction of justice.9 In this highly celebrated trial, the government produced over 100 witnesses and 400 transcripts of phone conversations obtained through 10 years of investigation. In the post-verdict interviews, jurors expressed that “there was absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Al-Arian.”10 Similar views were also expressed by the defense counsel that concluded that the prosecution’s case was so weak that there was no need to call defense evidence in the trial.11 In February 2007, a grocer and university professor was also acquitted by the Chicago jury of a terrorist conspiracy to finance Palestinian political organization of Hamas.12 In October 2007, another jury acquitted five defendants of nearly 200 combined terrorist charges in Dallas, Texas.13 Five defendants were former officials of the Islamic charity and philanthropic organization that provided financial assistance to the poor in occupied Palestinian territories.14

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