WASHINGTON - Federal prosecutors are urging an Illinois judge to deny attempts to free Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri from indefinite military custody in South Carolina, saying that the 37-year-old native of Qatar is "being held consistent with the laws and customs of war."
U.S. authorities also contend in a legal brief filed this week that the federal court in Peoria, Ill., lacks jurisdiction in the case now that Al-Marri has been transferred to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, and that no relative or close friend has signed his petition for release, as prescribed by law.
Al-Marri, a father of five who entered the United States just one day before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was about to go on trial on fraud and false statement charges in Peoria when the Bush administration dismissed the case and declared him an enemy combatant in the United States' war on terror.
Under that declaration he joined two other detainees - Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi - who have been placed under military custody and are being kept from their families, their lawyers and the U.S. courts.
A crucial federal hearing in the Al-Marri case is scheduled for July 28 in Peoria, and the outcome could set a precedent for how far Washington can go in detaining individuals in its attempt to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.
Al-Marri's lawyers allege that he was transferred to military custody because he refused to plead guilty to fraud charges and would not cooperate with authorities investigating other possible terrorist activities. They are asking that he be released immediately.
But prosecutors, in their brief filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Peoria, countered that the defense request should be transferred to a judge in South Carolina, or dismissed outright.
Prosecutors contend that as long as the war on terror continues, President Bush has the authority to identify certain suspected terrorists as enemy combatants in order to "deter and prevent acts of international terrorism" from spreading around the United States.
"While the military campaign is ongoing, the al-Qaida network and those who support it remain a serious threat, as does the risk of future terrorist attacks on United States citizens," prosecutors said.
U.S. authorities have characterized Al-Marri as a "sleeper cell operative" who came to this country with his family under the guise of being a family man wishing to attend college in Illinois, but who actually was placed here to help foreign terrorists settle in the United States.
They have said that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, al-Qaida's operations chief now in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location, has identified Al-Marri as an al-Qaida facilitator. Investigators found numerous anti-American materials in Al-Marri's computer laptop at home, officials said.
With that kind of evidence in mind, prosecutors said, "Al-Marri is currently being held consistent with the laws and customs of war, in the control of the military as an enemy combatant in this ongoing armed conflict."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.