On the surface, it may seem that the guilty verdicts against the alleged “dirty bomb” plotter Jose Padilla – made in a civil court after being held for three years without charge – signals the end of a long battle against the US government’s most high profile use of “enemy combatant” status against a US citizen. But with the rationale for the initial arrest and detention laid to waste in the tradeoff, the real battle against unlawful detention and denial of a fair trial has yet to occur.
For the Bush administration, allowing the case to be made through civilian courts was a huge gamble that paid off, in part due to the downgrading of charges from participation in a specific act (there was no mention in court of a “dirty bomb”) to three lesser conspiracy charges of attending a terror training camp and conspiracy to maim, murder, or kidnap overseas. Despite having the benefit of three years of dubiously obtained evidence that could never have been otherwise used in a court of law, what was eventually used against Padilla was remarkably weak. The primary item, a “mujahedin data form”, placed him at an Afghan training camp that was not linked to any acts of terrorism. Jurors were inundated with 3,000 phone conversations, most taped well before 9/11 in the 1990’s, with only two involving Padilla. By the prosecution’s own admission, the evidence had no link to an actual terrorist threat. Yet in the current climate of fear, that was enough to convict Padilla in a tangled web of association.
The downside of the gamble was the sinking of any plausible explanation for the years in solitary confinement, due to Padilla’s alleged inherent danger to national security. When Padilla sought to dismiss the charges in court on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial was violated, any mention of his detention was barred from the case. It is this indefensible scenario – the denial of a citizen’s right to trial – that the government has still managed to avoid in court, and their only real claim of victory in this case.
“The verdicts prove that there was no basis for Padilla’s military detention,” said Padilla attorney Andrew Patel. “The prisoner’s treatment in captivity will soon become a central issue.” While the treatment is outlined in allegations made on Padilla’s behalf, the evidence includes his diminished mental state, caused by multiple extended periods of isolation from human contact and certified by psychologists to likely be beyond repair.
With the criminal trial now over, defense attorneys are focusing on appeals based in part on this treatment as well as the absence of “dirty bomb” allegations in the charges that were eventually made. As the basis for Padilla’s “unlawful combatant” status, the allegations were held as sacrosanct by the government. Releasing evidence for the allegations would reveal more than the government wants people to know about the way it extracts information. But without them, the detention is nearly inexplicable.
Padilla, like would be LAX-bomber Ahmed Ressam, may very well have been prosecuted and convicted in the same way if he had immediately been afforded the legal protection that he was entitled to. But with so much of the evidence corrupted, along with Padilla’s now diminished state of mind, that is now distant speculation. No citizen, Muslim or not, should oppose the fair use of the justice system to prosecute those who have conspired to murder. There are currently people accused of far more serious crimes than Padilla (though not US citizens) rotting away in Guantanamo. But by resorting to indefinite detentions and illegal and immoral tactics to extract information – with no evidence that such information has ever been useful – federal prosecutors risk losing any chance of proving any of the allegations, as the case as a whole could be ruled inadmissable in court and seen as indefensible in the public eye.
U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who sentenced Algerian Ahmed Ressam in July 2005 for plotting to bomb LAX, felt compelled to make a statement about the Bush administration’s strategies in his decision. “We did not need to use a secret military tribunal,” explained Coughenour, “detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant or deny the defendant the right to counsel.” If the Bush administration is now acknowledging this course of action is valid, the use of indefinite detentions may be less possible in the future – and may still see its own day in court.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.