Monday, April 16, 2007

Experts: Even if Acquitted, Padilla Could Go to Prison

Posted on Mon, Apr. 16, 2007

Padilla in jail peril, experts say

By James Gordon Meek

New York Daily News


WASHINGTON - Accused al-Qaida agent Jose Padilla could be thrown back in a military brig even if he's acquitted or gets a light sentence in his civilian criminal trial beginning this week, experts say.

All President Bush would have to do is sign papers again branding him an "enemy combatant," and Padilla would be back behind bars.

Bush did that in 2002, when the Brooklyn-born terror suspect was stripped of his constitutional rights and held in a Navy jail for three years without charges.

"There is nothing stopping the president from doing it," said Gary Solis, a former Marine prosecutor who teaches law at Georgetown University. "If he were acquitted, he's not necessarily going anywhere."

And if Padilla is returned to military custody, he could be held indefinitely until the end of the war on terror, Solis said.

"What restrains the government from reclassifying Padilla as an enemy combatant? I don't know of anything," agreed Karen Greenberg, an expert on terrorism law at New York University.

Padilla and two others are charged in Miami with allegedly conspiring to form a "terror cell" to send recruits to fight Russian troops in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Even though his arrest was trumpeted as the capture of a terrorist intent on wreaking death and destruction in the U.S., he isn't facing justice for plotting a catastrophe here.

After Padilla's May 2002 arrest by the FBI in Chicago, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said he was "an al-Qaida operative ... exploring a plan to build and explode a radioactive `dirty' bomb."

He also allegedly wanted to blow up apartment buildings in New York City and Washington.

"Abu Abdullah the Puerto Rican," as Padilla was allegedly known, was designated an enemy combatant by Bush a month later. In the brig, he was denied access to lawyers or courts and now claims he was tortured.

Despite the unrelated charges he faces in the federal trial, officials still believe he worked for Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and top lieutenant Abu Zubaydah. They didn't charge him with the dirty bomb plot because witnesses were "not available," though Mohammed and Zubaydah are in U.S. hands.

Returning Padilla to military custody would spark a "brand-new constitutional firestorm," predicted Neal Sonnett, chairman of the American Bar Association's enemy combatants task force.

Critics also say the Military Commissions Act of 2006 ensures Bush can designate U.S. citizens - not just foreigners - as enemy combatants who can't challenge their detention.

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