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Padilla terror case gets closer look

His lawyers, alleging abuse, want him freed. A judge may hold the first such hearing on the treatment of detainees.

December 17, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

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 Qaeda 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 had 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. That too would be a first -- a Sept. 11-era detainee testifying about his treatment.

He has told his lawyers and mental-health experts that he was held without sunlight, adequate food or a clock, and was injected with truth-serum drugs 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. Some officials have expressed concerns in written reports that Padilla and two other enemy combatants held in the brig outside Charleston, S.C., were abused.

'No merit whatsoever'

Federal prosecutors repeatedly have denied that Padilla was mistreated. "Mr. 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 U.S. The Department of Justice, led by then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, castigated 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, a former federal prosecutor and a defense lawyer appointed to the bench by President Bush, has scheduled a meeting Monday with both sides, and could rule then on the torture and competency questions.

Should she grant a hearing into the allegations, that would mark a major victory for criminal defense lawyers and human rights activists who have said the administration routinely violated the constitutional rights of detainees arrested after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

"This is a very fair judge," said Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney who chaired an American Bar Assn. task force on enemy combatants. "She's very bright. She knows the law very well. And I think this is the kind of case in which the court understands that the world is watching."

Chances of dismissal

Sonnett and other legal experts noted that dismissal motions seldom are granted because they deny prosecutors the chance to put on their case.

"A lot of bad things were probably done to Mr. Padilla," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who has monitored many of the terrorism cases. "But that doesn't mean you automatically get a dismissal."

Padilla, 36, was born in Brooklyn, raised in Chicago and, after embracing Islam in South Florida, moved to Egypt where he allegedly became involved with terrorist groups.

He was taken into custody in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after stepping off a plane from Zurich. Law enforcement officials said his arrest broke up a plot in which Padilla was sent back to attack targets in the U.S.

In June 2002, Bush designated him an "enemy combatant," and the military put him in the Navy brig. In November 2005, he was charged with aiding terrorists abroad. Last January, he was moved to a federal jail in Miami to await trial. He was moved into the federal system before the Supreme Court could rule on whether a U.S. citizen could be indefinitely detained as an enemy combatant.

Andrew Patel of New York, one of the defense lawyers, said the defense was not allowed into the brig until March 2004, only to discover that Padilla was alone in a two-tiered wing of 10 cells.

"Mr. Padilla was the only person housed in that unit," Patel said. "He had no contact with other human beings."

Patel said the cell windows were blocked; no natural light entered the 9-by-7 space. There was no mirror, no clock, no calendar: just a slot in the door for food and a steel platform for a bed.

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