Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Who knows on Padilla

Newsday The world has known many nations where soldiers could jack people off the streets and dump them into a black hole of incarceration without charges or trials. It has seen woeful places where people could be branded traitors and denied an opportunity to fight the accusation that officials need never prove. Proudly, for 226 years the United States wasn't one of those nations. Now it is.

The country tumbled into that legal abyss on June 9, 2002. That's when President George W. Bush declared U.S. citizen Jose Padilla an enemy combatant and had him hustled into a military brig. Seized in Chicago, Padilla has been behind bars ever since, with no criminal charges, no trial and no chance to be heard. Congress should summon the will to rein Bush in or, failing that, the Supreme Court should lay down the limits of presidential authority and make them stick.

Padilla may be a terrorist. But the government's allegations have repeatedly changed. First he was accused of a plot to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb." Then it was a plan to use conventional explosives to level apartment buildings. The latest is that Padilla took up arms against the United States in Afghanistan and then re-entered the states, a terrorist in waiting. Is any of it true? Who knows. Washington hasn't been required to present any evidence, and Padilla's version of events has never been heard.

Bush insists that he alone controls Padilla's fate as long as the nation is at war. He has based that assertion, in large part, on the authorization for the use of military force that Congress passed in 2001. If Congress intended to hand Bush such extraordinary control over the lives of ordinary Americans, it should unambiguously reaffirm that intent. That would be a mistake of historic proportions. But it would at least be clear. If Congress didn't intend to give Bush such sweeping power, it should make that clear.

If Congress won't step up, then the courts must. The Supreme Court ruled last year in the case of Yaser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen captured in Afghanistan, that citizens designated enemy combatants can be detained, but must be allowed a fair chance to challenge that designation. The ruling didn't resolve Padilla's situation, the court said, because a petition on his behalf was filed in the wrong jurisdiction.

A new request for Supreme Court intervention, filed Oct. 25, poses a simple question: How long is too long for the government to keep a citizen behind bars without criminal charges or a day in court? Bush says he can hold Padilla until the war on terror ends. The court should answer that three and a half years is too long. Justice delayed is justice denied.


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