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Jose Padilla Terrorism Trial Starts Today

Jose Padilla Terrorism Trial Starts TodayOpening statements will be heard in Miami today in the case involving Jose Padilla, a US citizen and former gang member who converted to Islam while in prison. Padilla, 36, has been accused of material support of a terrorist organization and conspiracy to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas. Among the key documents expected to be provided by the prosecution is The Mujahedeen Data Form, the equivalent of al Qa'ida's human resources document. The prosecution reports that Padilla filled out the Data Form in July, 2000 and proves his allegiance to al Qa'ida. The Data Form requests information such as date of birth, skill sets, and languages spoken. Most of the responses on Padilla's asserted application are blank. Padilla is the first American citizen labeled an "enemy combatant" to face charges in a US criminal court.

The FBI detained Padilla at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, there was a great deal of fanfare surrounding his arrest. Then Attorney General, John Ashcroft, interrupted a trip in Russia to announce the allegations that Padilla was involved in a plot to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Padilla was transferred to a military brig in Charleston, SC and held as an "enemy combatant." He spent more than 3 years in military custody where he was kept in solitary confinement and subjected to stress positions, as well as prolonged interrogations without an attorney present.

Padilla was transferred to civilian custody after his military detention was ascending to the US Supreme Court. The charges of the "dirty bomb" plot were dropped at that time and Padilla was then charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and providing material support to al Qa'ida. Most of the evidence from Padilla's military detention is inadmissible in the current case in Miami. US District Judge, Marcia Cooke, has stated that any mention of the "dirty bomb" plot or Padilla's statements while in military custody would allow his defense team to cross-examine the prosecution regarding interrogation tactics, including alleged torture.

Padilla's case is part of a larger evolution of alleged terrorists in US custody. Since the US led "war on terror" has begun, several cases have been circulating in US courts regarding the rights of those in US custody. As a result of several cases, the US Congress has passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2006, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This new legislation collectively curtails the rights of foreign nationals normally protected by the US Constitution. Congress is currently considering several bills that will re-establish some of these rights and close the military detention facility at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, effectively opening the doors to civilian courts. In another case, the US is arguing that this new legislation applies to any alleged terrorist captured after September 11th, including US citizens. This claim would mean that anyone detained by US officials, including US citizens, for alleged terrorists activities are no longer protected by the Constitution.

The Pentagon shows 389 detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility and one in military custody in South Carolina. Three of them face war crimes charges before military tribunals established following courts rulings regarding their status. Padilla's charges were designated war crimes by the United States. One of these cases, David Hicks, resulted in a nine-month sentence by the military tribunal. Another US citizen, John Lindh, is serving a 20 year sentence at the Supermax facility in Colorado for similar charges. Padilla faces a life sentence if convicted of all charges.

UPDATE:  I made mention of US citizens and habeas.  That allegation is incorrect.  The case I referred to was Al-Marri v. Wright.  The government is claiming the habeas stripping provisions of the DTA and MCA apply to al Marri, but are not doing so in Padilla.  Al Marri was in the US on a visa, but is not a citizen; Padilla is a US citizen and therefore his Constitutional rights remain intact.


Reuters/Baltimore Sun/ABC News

Lyle Denniston has a very thorough examination of the rights of detainees at SCOTUS blog here and here.



Daniel Graeber

Daniel Graeber is a writer for United Press International covering Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Levant. He has published works on international and constitutional law pertaining to US terrorism cases and on child soldiers. His first major work, entitled The United States and Israel: The Implications of Alignment, is featured in the text, Strategic Interests in the Middle East: Opposition or Support for US Foreign Policy. He holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Conflict Management from Norwich University, where his focus was international relations theory, international law, and the role of non-state actors.

Areas of Focus:International law; Middle East; Government and Politics; non-state actors