Detained American indicted

After 3 1/2 years, Padilla charged but not with `dirty bomb' plot

November 23, 2005|By RICHARD B. SCHMITT

WASHINGTON -- Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen whose three-year detention in a Navy brig without criminal charges has been a defining legal battle in the Bush administration's war on terror, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami, the Justice Department said yesterday.

In an 11-count indictment, Padilla and four co-defendants were accused of operating a terrorist cell in Canada and the United States in the eight years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The indictment, handed up last week and unsealed yesterday, charges the five men with providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to murder people overseas.

It contends that they sent money and recruits overseas with an intention to "murder, kidnap and maim."

Padilla, 35, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Chicago, where he was arrested on a number of occasions for gang activities. As an adult, he moved to Florida, married and converted to Islam. In May 2002, as he was returning from Pakistan, the FBI arrested him at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

A month later President Bush designated him an "enemy combatant" and ordered him held in military custody.

At the time, Padilla was linked by administration officials, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, to a plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States. Officials later said he was involved in plans to blow up hotels and apartment buildings using natural gas and had been trained in weapons and explosives by members of al-Qaida.

The indictment made no reference to either scheme or to any planned attacks in America, triggering questions about the strength of the earlier claims.

The charges against Padilla, long sought by his lawyers, finally assure him his day in court. He had become a test case of a Bush administration policy to hold certain suspects indefinitely without criminal charges or trials - and, in some cases, without access to lawyers.

Padilla's attorneys have fought his detention, saying that as a U.S. citizen, he was being denied his rights to be charged or freed. But a federal appeals court held in September that the government could continue to detain him indefinitely, dealing a major setback to the defense.

One of his lawyers, Donna Newman, said at a news conference yesterday in New York that her client denied all the allegations and looked forward to being vindicated at trial.

"We are very happy about this indictment. It's what we've asked for. You don't hold American citizens without charges," she said. "Now we can go to court and challenge the government's assertions."

Senior Justice Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the department was not backing away from the earlier charges but had made a strategic decision that weighed the desire to prosecute Padilla with the need to keep certain evidence classified because of national security considerations.

The indictment also appeared to be a calculated attempt by the administration to head off the possibility of an adverse legal ruling in Padilla's case from the Supreme Court, which had held against the government in a similar case last year.

Padilla's lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and the Justice Department response is due Monday.

At a news conference, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales declined to discuss why the earlier allegations against Padilla were not being brought to court, but he called the charges against the men grave.

If convicted, Padilla faces a term of life imprisonment.

Officials said yesterday that Padilla was being moved from a military jail in South Carolina, where he has been held in solitary confinement since 2002, to a federal prison in Miami.

Because he has been indicted, his case - at least for now - will proceed through the federal courts, rather than to a military tribunal. Justice Department officials set a tentative trial date of September 2006.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

FROM ARREST TO INDICTMENT

How events involving Jose Padilla (at left) unfolded:

May 8, 2002: Padilla arrested at Chicago airport with cash and names of al-Qaida operatives.

June 9, 2002: Padilla listed as "enemy combatant."

Dec. 4, 2002: A U.S. district judge rules that a federal court has authority to decide whether Padilla was properly detained.

Dec. 18, 2003: 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals orders Padilla to be released from custody within 30 days but suspends its order after the Bush administration appeals to Supreme Court.

Sept. 9, 2005: A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel rules that the government can continue to hold Padilla indefinitely.

Oct. 25, 2005: Padilla asks the Supreme Court to limit the government's power to hold him. The Bush administration has until Nov. 28 to file response.

Yesterday: Padilla indicted by federal grand jury on charges he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas.

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