- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to decide whether the Bush administration can detain U.S. citizens indefinitely and without access to their lawyers or to the courts when they are suspected of being “enemy combatants.”

The case involves a constitutional challenge by Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam. He was arrested by the FBI in May 2002 in a suspected scheme to detonate a “dirty bomb” in the United States.

Padilla, a New York native and felon whose Arabic name, Abdullah al Muhajir, translates to “the emigrant,” was taken into custody at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and later turned over to U.S. military authorities, who are holding him as an enemy combatant.

In December, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that President Bush lacked the authority to hold Padilla as an enemy combatant and gave the government 30 days to release him. The appeals court order was delayed to give the Supreme Court time to decide whether it would hear the case.

The Padilla matter is a companion case to a similar constitutional challenge brought by Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen also held as an enemy combatant since his capture during fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hamdi claims he has not been charged with a crime and is being held incommunicado.

In the Hamdi case, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled that he could be detained as an enemy combatant during wartime without the constitutional protections afforded Americans in criminal prosecutions.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear both cases in late April, with a ruling expected in July. At the same time, the court also is expected to hear arguments in an appeal by inmates of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, who claim their detention is illegal.

The major difference the Padilla and Hamdi cases is that, while both men are U.S. citizens, Padilla was arrested in the United States and Hamdi was taken into custody on foreign soil, engaged with the enemy against U.S. troops. U.S. authorities said Hamdi traveled to Afghanistan to train with and “if necessary, fight for the Taliban.”

Federal authorities believe Padilla intended to detonate a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, at a number of targets, including government buildings in Washington. They also said he met with leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network during trips he made to Pakistan and Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, including Abu Zubaydah, a top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden. Zubaydah was captured March 28 during raids by Pakistani police in Faisalabad, Pakistan.

Authorities said Zubaydah sent Padilla to Lahore, Pakistan, after a meeting in Afghanistan, where he was trained in building and detonating dirty bombs. Padilla’s trip to Chicago in May 2002, authorities said, was to begin reconnaissance for a bombing target and seek a source for the radioactive material for a dirty bomb.

The Guantanamo legal challenge was filed on behalf of 16 of the approximately 650 non-U.S. citizens from 40 countries held as suspected terrorists at the U.S. Navy facility in Cuba. A federal appeals court in Washington ruled against them, saying foreign citizens captured and held abroad have no right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

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