Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Padilla indictment avoids high court showdown

No 'dirty bomb' charges filed against suspect held for three years

NBC WASHINGTON - In a surprise legal development, the Bush administration announced Tuesday that Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held without charges for more than three years on suspicion of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack in this country, has instead been charged with conspiring to “murder, maim and kidnap” people overseas.

A federal grand jury in Miami added Padilla to a pre-existing indictment against four others, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters.

While the charges allege Padilla was part of a terrorism conspiracy, they do not include the government’s earlier allegations that he planned to target the United States by using a radioactive dirty bomb and blowing up apartment buildings with natural gas.

Gonzales said he expected Padilla to be alongside the other four when the case goes to trial next September.

“The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting a violent jihad,” Gonzales said.

Saying he could only talk about the specific charges, Gonzales declined to answer NBC News questions about why none of the allegations involving attacks in America were included in the indictment.

Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert, had been held as an “enemy combatant” in Defense Department custody. The Bush administration had resisted calls to charge and try him in civilian courts.

Padilla faces life in prison if convicted on the three charges — one count each of conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap people overseas, providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy.

According to the indictment, Padilla traveled overseas to receive violent jihad training and to fight violent jihad from October 1993 to November 2001. On July 24, 2000, Padilla allegedly filled out a “Mujahideen Data Form” in preparation for violent jihad training in Afghanistan and reportedly was seen in that country in October 2000.

The charges against him and four others allege they were part of a North American support cell that sent money, assets and recruits overseas “for the purpose of fighting violent jihad.” The indictment mentions Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Egypt and Bosnia, but makes no allegations of specific attacks anywhere.

The others indicted are: Adham Amin Hassoun a Lebanese-born Palestinian who lived in Broward County, Fla.;, Mohammed Hesham Youssef, an Egyptian who lived in Broward County; Kifah Wael Jayyousi, a Jordanian national and U.S. citizen who lived in San Diego; and Kassem Daher, a Lebanese citizen with Canadian residency status.

NBC’s Pete Williams reported that Padilla was being transferred from Pentagon custody and into the criminal courts system on Tuesday, ending the long legal battle over whether he should be in military custody.

The Bush administration had earlier resisted calls to charge and try Padilla in civilian courts.

The indictment avoids a Supreme Court showdown over how long the government could hold a U.S. citizen without charges. The high court had been asked to decide when and for how long the government can jail Americans in military prisons.

“They’re avoiding what the Supreme Court would say about American citizens (as enemy combatants). That’s an issue the administration did not want to face,” said Scott Silliman, a Duke University law professor who specializes in national security. “There’s no way that the Supreme Court would have ducked this issue.”

Padilla’s lawyers had asked justices to review his case last month, and the Bush administration was facing a deadline next Monday for filing its legal arguments.

“The ‘evidence’ the government has offered against Padilla over the past three years consists of double and triple hearsay from secret witnesses, along with information allegedly obtained from Padilla himself during his two years of incommunicado interrogation,” his lawyers said in their earlier appeal.

Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 2002 after returning from Pakistan. The federal government has said he was trained in weapons and explosives by members of al-Qaida.

Padilla has been held at a Navy brig in South Carolina. Following the indictment, which was handed up last Thursday, President Bush sent a memo to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordering Padilla transferred to the federal detention facility in Miami.

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