Suits to test rules for terror suspects

Use of military authority to be challenged

September 19, 2005|By Richard A. Serrano

WASHINGTON -- Four years into the war against terrorism, he hardly merits a footnote. Alongside other enemy captives - names such as Padilla and Moussaoui - he is largely forgotten.

But new developments in the case involving Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, a Qatari immigrant arrested in rural Illinois, pose intriguing questions about how the government is handling high-value terror suspects in secret prison locations.

The case also is shaping up as the first major test of the broad enemy combatant authority granted the president, which has drawn the ire of civil libertarians because it allows the government to hold people indefinitely without trial.

Last month, Al-Marri, 39, became the first terrorism suspect to file a lawsuit specifically based on allegations of mistreatment in his isolation cell inside a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where his lawyers wrote that "there is almost nothing to distract him from his torment." They said he was restricted to a tiny metal cell, without visits or books or newspapers, that he goes long stretches without hot meals or warm water, and often is deprived of decent toilet privileges.

Next month his lawyers plan to file legal papers in a separate lawsuit attacking President Bush's use of military authority to designate enemy combatants.

The attorneys want a federal court hearing into the constitutionality of the enemy combatant designation process, with testimony and evidence they hope will show that Bush is given unacceptably wide latitude to pick and choose who he locks away forever.

Neither the Bush administration nor the Pentagon will discuss enemy combatants. But responding to Al-Marri's suit about prison conditions in Charleston, the Department of Defense issued a brief statement: "Enemy combatants have been trained to make sensational claims about their detention if captured."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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