Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Padilla trial begins

The trial of Jose Padilla began -- well, it's yesterday now, I guess -- in Miami. While it's a tribute to some people who were insistent that the rule of law not be abandoned entirely in the face of the vaunted War on Terror, the trial, and the way Padilla was treated prior to having a trial, will be a serious blot on this country.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was arrested way back in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, on a flight from Pakistan then-Attorney General John Ashcroft declared him a "dirty bomber" who had plans to blow up apartment buildings with a bomb containing radioactive material to make it more harmful, and a key terrorist operative. It soon became apparent he was more a wannabe than a real terrorist. He was then declared an "enemy combatant" and locked up incommunicado in a Navy brig in South Carolina. Not charged with anything, just locked up.

Lawyers appealed on his behalf and his case got to the Supreme Court -- almost twice (the first time it was remanded for having been brought in the wrong venue). When the court was about to decide whether to take the case again, the government suddenly decided it would charge him in a civilian court as part of a conspiracy to murder and maim people overseas and to raise money and recruits for terrorist organizations. This is completely different from the allegations made about him when he was first arrested.

He may well have gone to an al-Qaida training camp. Whether the information form (al-Qaida has written application forms? Who knew?) that seems to be the key evidence against him is authentic or relevant to the charges against him will of course be contested.

But the main issue, when and how people can be detained and imprisoned without charges being filed against them -- a charaacteristic of authoritarian regimes, not free societies with habeas corpus -- may not be adjudicated in this case.

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