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'Enemy combatant' expected to be charged

The move in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri may be timed to avoid a showdown in the Supreme Court.

February 27, 2009|Josh Meyer and David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is preparing to bring criminal charges against the only person detained in this country by the military as an "enemy combatant," possibly defusing a dispute before the Supreme Court over whether the president has the right to hold civilians without charges.

Prosecutors are expected, as early as today, to charge Ali Saleh Kahlah Marri with supporting the Al Qaeda terrorist network, said government sources familiar with the case. His lawyer said he had unofficial confirmation that Marri had already been indicted on charges of material support for terrorism.

The charges against Marri by a federal grand jury in Springfield, Ill., would come at the request of federal prosecutors there in consultation with officials in Washington, said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case remained under seal.

The case has been closely watched by civil rights advocates as a test of whether the Obama administration would reverse course on the Bush administration's claims that the president has the power to declare someone -- including a civilian like Marri -- an enemy combatant and hold him indefinitely without charges or a trial.

Marri was arrested in December 2001 at his home in Peoria, Ill., by federal agents who thought he was an Al Qaeda operative sent to the U.S. to help launch attacks after the Sept. 11 terrorist assault.

He is challenging his designation as an enemy combatant in a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in April.

A criminal indictment would not automatically resolve the legal issues, one of his lawyers said Thursday. And the Obama administration has not said whether it intends to proceed with the case or reverse course and not defend the Bush administration's stance.

If the criminal charges are true, "it's certainly a step in the right direction in restoring the rule of law in this country, and it is something that should have happened when he was first arrested seven years ago," said Jonathan Hafetz, lead counsel in Marri's case before the Supreme Court.

"But the Supreme Court also needs to hear the case to make it clear once and for all that the president does not have the power to lock up American citizens or legal residents and hold them indefinitely without charge or trial," Hafetz, a lawyer with the ACLU National Security Project, said in an interview.

The Justice Department and White House had no comment on the Marri case or on whether he would be moved from a military brig in South Carolina to face terrorism-related charges in Illinois.

One source familiar with the case said charges would not be surprising because one of President Obama's first moves after taking office was to order a review of all detainee cases -- and Marri's in particular.

Marri was scheduled to stand trial on fraud and other non-terrorism charges in 2003, but the case was halted at the last minute when President Bush designated him an enemy combatant.

In December, over the objections of the Bush administration, the Supreme Court voted to hear Marri's appeal.

Legal experts say the government was expected to lose the case, given that a five-justice majority last year rejected the Bush administration's policy at Guantanamo Bay and said the detainees, though captured abroad, were entitled to hearings before a federal judge.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

david.savage@latimes.com

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