Judge considers Padilla allegations

Terror suspect maltreated, defense says

December 17, 2006|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,Los Angeles Times

Washington -- A federal judge in Miami will soon make one of the most important rulings in the Bush administration's war on terrorism and decide whether to publicly explore evidence that an accused terrorist was brutally mistreated for years inside a one-man isolation cell.

The allegations involve Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen once portrayed as one of the most dangerous al-Qaida operatives ever arrested. Padilla's lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke to set him free because of the abuse they say he suffered.

Though federal judges rarely dismiss criminal charges before trial, the allegations are so extreme that they may prompt Cooke to hold a pretrial hearing in what would be the first public court examination into how detainees were handled after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Padilla's lawyers also hope to shut down his case by proving that his incarceration as an "enemy combatant" at a Navy brig for more than three years without charges has left him incompetent to stand trial.

Any hearing before the trial, scheduled for next month, could prove explosive, as defense lawyers are leaning toward putting Padilla on the witness stand.

He has told his lawyers and mental health experts that he was held without sunlight, adequate food or even a clock, and was injected with truth serum to coerce him to talk. At times, he said, his wrists and torso were chained to the cell floor.

Further heightening the drama is a defense request to question military officials about conditions at the brig.

Federal prosecutors repeatedly have denied that Padilla was mistreated. "Padilla's allegations of torture have no merit whatsoever," prosecutors said in court filings.

Padilla was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of trying to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States. The Department of Justice, led by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, portrayed Padilla as a major terrorist menace but eventually scaled back its assessment and filed lesser charges of conspiracy.

Prosecutors say they can prove he was part of a "North American terror support cell" that sent money and supplies to terrorists in Bosnia and Chechnya. The government is urging the judge to deny Padilla's dismissal request -- without airing the claims in a court hearing.

The judge has scheduled a meeting for tomorrow.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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