WASHINGTON - Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi, both of modest backgrounds and transient lives, are perhaps the last people most would expect to launch a significant legal challenge to the Bush administration's war on terror.
Coupled with hundreds of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, though, Padilla and Hamdi have nonetheless presented the first real setback to President Bush's claim of unbridled authority.
Yesterday, the detainees, and Padilla and Hamdi, already well-known names among legal scholars and administration officials, achieved a place in history with landmark rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court largely in their favor. It was a long way to come for a gang member and petty criminal from Chicago, and a 20-year-old who spent a few months of his life in Louisiana.
For more than two years Hamdi, Padilla and the detainees have been held largely incommunicado, without the ability to contest the charges against them or get access to attorneys.
In that time, absent their voices or a court record of charges, many of the accusations against them have changed, shifting along with their perceived relevance to the war on terror.
Padilla "is absolutely amazed, as anyone would be," with the significance of his case, Donna Newman, his lawyer, said yesterday in an interview. She has been granted two visits to talk with Padilla in recent months, and said Hamdi's victory is a victory for both cases.
"Padilla's a soft-spoken individual, a little angry, but more distraught," she said. "He has maintained his innocence all along and has been afforded no due process."
Padilla's case has undergone the biggest transformation.
Two years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft was beamed in over a satellite thookup from Moscow to announce that authorities had thwarted a plot to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb," a broadcast so alarming that it caused a drop in the stock market and elicited a private rebuke from White House officials.
From plot to scheme
Within weeks, however, the dire plot appeared to have been more a loosely concocted scheme, and Padilla, far from being Osama bin Laden's protM-igM-i, seemed at best to have been only tangentially connected.
Early this month, Justice officials scrapped the "dirty bomb" plot altogether, and said Padilla was sent to the United States to blow up apartment buildings. In the department's new outline, officials acknowledge that not even bin Laden's top lieutenants thought Padilla could pull off a nuclear or radioactive dirty bomb and sent him off to train for something more "feasible."
Padilla was arrested May 8, 2002, when he stepped off the plane in his childhood home of Chicago. Until then, his life had been a series of unremarkable jobs and petty crime, starting from his youth as a member of a Chicago gang, to juvenile detention and later adult prison in Florida.
Nelly Ojeda, a neighbor when he was growing up, said yesterday that he was quiet and sweet, a chubby boy who loved to watch television and was always polite.
`A sweet kid'
"I'm surprised by everything that's going on," she said. "I don't believe any of that stuff about him. He was a very good boy, a sweet kid.
"I hope [yesterday's ruling] helps him," she said. "Once they get you in there, it's like they'll never let you out."
It was in prison in Florida, where he was serving a sentence for firing a revolver at a motorist during a road-rage incident, that he converted to Islam. After his release, he took a job in a fast-food restaurant and became involved with a local Muslim group.
He left for the Middle East, officials say, in 1998. In 2002, he met an al-Qaida recruiter and traveled to Afghanistan.
As unlikely as Padilla is to be heralded among civil liberties groups for forging ahead in the name of civil rights, Yasser Hamdi is perhaps an even less likely figure.
Moved to Saudi Arabia
Hamdi, now 22, moved with his parents shortly after his birth to Saudi Arabia, where he was raised. U.S. officials contend that he traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 and joined up with the Taliban military and received weapons training.
According to the Defense department, he stayed with his military unit after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks until it surrendered to the Northern Alliance in the fall. When U.S. forces took over the prison, Hamdi was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a detainee.
When military officials interrogated him and learned he was a U.S. citizen - who can speak and read English, his lawyer says - they moved him to the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C.
That move came back to haunt Justice Department lawyers, who struggled to explain the decision while arguing that Hamdi's U.S. citizenship was irrelevant and afforded him no special rights or privileges.
Yesterday, Frank Dunham, Hamdi's lawyer, said he faxed a copy of the court's opinion to the Charleston brig, where Hamdi is being held, but has no way of knowing whether he has received it.