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Terror Suspect Indicted After 3 Years in Jail

The counts against Jose Padilla don't refer to the 'dirty bomb' plot he was first accused of. The U.S. citizen's detention has been a legal flashpoint.

November 23, 2005|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

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 terrorism, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

In an 11-count indictment, Padilla and four codefendants were accused of operating a terrorist cell in Canada and the United States in the eight years leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The indictment, handed up last week and unsealed Tuesday, charges the five men with providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to murder individuals overseas. It contends that they sent money and recruits overseas with an intention to "murder, kidnap and maim."

Padilla, 35, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Chicago, where he was arrested a number of times in gang-related crimes. 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-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, to an alleged plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S. Officials later said he was involved in plans to blow up hotels and apartment buildings using natural gas, and that he had been trained in weapons and explosives by members of Al Qaeda.

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

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

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

One of his lawyers, Donna Newman, said at a news conference Tuesday in New York that her client had denied all of 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."

She and others said the indictment amounted to a concession by the administration that there were limits to how long it could hold people in times of war.

Senior Justice Department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that the department was not backing away from the earlier charges but that it 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 ruling in Padilla's case from the Supreme Court, which held against the government in a similar case last year.

Padilla's lawyers have asked the high court to review the case, and the Justice Department response is due Monday. Department officials said Tuesday that they believed the indictment would make it unlikely that the court would want to take up the matter, although Padilla's lawyers said they would continue to press their case.

At a news conference, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales declined to discuss why the earlier allegations against Padilla were not being brought to court, but he said the charges against him and the others were grave.

"The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting a violent jihad," Gonzales told reporters. Asked what version of events the public should believe about Padilla and his activities, he said, "I would urge the public to focus on the facts as alleged in this indictment."

If convicted, Padilla faces a term of life imprisonment. Also indicted were Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, who are being detained in Florida; Mohammed Hesham Youssef, who is in prison in Egypt; and Kassem Daher, whose legal status is unclear but who is believed to be outside the United States. Hassoun, Youssef and Jayyousi were previously charged in the case; Daher is a newly charged defendant.

Officials said Tuesday 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.

His lawyers requested that he be arraigned before a federal magistrate as soon as Friday but noted that, given the Thanksgiving holiday, any such appearance would probably be postponed.

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