By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007
MIAMI, Aug. 16 -- A federal jury convicted former "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla on Thursday of terrorism conspiracy charges, handing a courthouse victory to the Bush administration, which had originally sought to imprison him without a criminal trial.
Padilla was arrested in 2002 for allegedly plotting a radiological "dirty bomb" attack, but prosecutors chose not to pursue those allegations in court here. But after a three-month trial, they had convinced the jury that Padilla, 36, participated in a South Florida-based al-Qaeda support cell that in the '90s began to send money and people to wage holy war in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and Somalia.
Padilla and co-defendants Adham Hassoun, a Lebanese-born Palestinian, and Kifah Jayyousi, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Jordan, were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim overseas, an offense with a maximum penalty of life in prison. They also were convicted of one count of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists and one count of material support for terrorists. Sentencing is set for Dec. 5.
"The conviction of Jose Padilla -- an American who provided material support to terrorists and trained for violent jihad -- is a significant victory in our efforts to fight the threat posed by terrorists and their supporters," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said.
The conviction essentially accomplishes through the criminal-court system what the administration had tried to do five years ago by executive fiat. For 3½ years after he was arrested upon reentering the country, Padilla was held without charges at a Navy brig in South Carolina, where he was housed in solitary confinement. The tactic drew fierce criticism from civil liberties advocates.
Padilla's lawyers charged that during his confinement, he was deprived of sleep, kept in a 9-foot-by-7-foot cell, chained in painful positions and injected with mind-altering drugs. Those conditions left him unable to participate in his own defense, the lawyers said. Padilla, like his co-defendants, did not take the stand.
Prosecutors and federal law enforcement officials called the conviction a reflection of their agencies' hard work. However, legal critics said the verdicts show that terrorism suspects can be tried in criminal courts and that there was no reason for the Bush administration to have declared Padilla an "enemy combatant" and to hold him for years without formal charges.
"This trial clearly undermines the Bush administration's unfounded fear that terrorists cannot -- in their view -- be tried in our criminal courts," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. The verdict proves, he said, "that the Bush administration should close Guantanamo and pursue terrorists in the criminal justice system, not outside the confines of the rule of law."
Entering the courtroom before the verdicts were read, Padilla smiled at his mother in the audience and seemed to crack a joke with one of his lawyers. Padilla was stone-faced as a clerk announced the guilty findings. One of his relatives began to sob loudly.
"No evidence, and they found him guilty," his mother, Estela Lebron, said, seeming stunned.
At the same time, co-defendant Jayyousi tried to offer encouraging grins to his wife in the audience. She seemed stunned, too, staring back wordlessly, not returning his smile.
During the long trial, jurors were presented with dozens of wiretapped calls, and the charges against the three men were complicated. Many observers were thus surprised that the panel took little more than a day to reach a decision.
The jury did seem to be an oddly cohesive group. On the last day of trial before the Fourth of July holiday, jurors arranged to dress in outfits so that each row in the jury box was its own patriotic color -- red, white or blue.
Jurors chose not to speak with reporters after the trial.
But in finding him guilty on all three counts, they appear to have endorsed prosecutors' allegations that Padilla was recruited by a co-defendant and that, in July 2000, he attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
The key piece of physical evidence against Padilla was a "mujahideen data form" -- basically, a personnel form that a CIA witness testified had been recovered from an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. Although defense lawyers attacked its authenticity, it bore Padilla's fingerprints and some of his personal information.
The other evidence was the wiretapped calls, of which Padilla's voice is heard on seven. These, however, offered few specific clues of his intentions.
In one typically vague call in April 2000, his alleged recruiter talked to Padilla about having prepared him "psychologically" and then seemed to press Padilla, then in Egypt, to become more active.
"Yeah, I mean . . . but I need training," Padilla responded. "This is the problem -- I mean, I don't have a recommendation."
Three months later, according to the "mujahideen data form," Padilla was attending the training camp.
To find him guilty of the murder conspiracy charge, the jury had to believe that Padilla intended, when he left the United States in 1998, to commit murder overseas.
On this point, the evidence was relatively thin.
On none of the calls does he explicitly call for killing or any other type of violence. A prosecution witness said that he attended the same training camp as Padilla -- to help defend Muslims in places where they might be under attack, not to become a terrorist.
Moreover, prosecutors never identified exactly whom Padilla and his co-defendants wanted to kill.
But in closing arguments prosecutors mentioned al-Qaeda more than 100 times, by one defense count, and urged jurors to in essence think of al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with it as an international murder conspiracy.
They told jurors to look beyond each piece of evidence -- many of which seemed weak in isolation -- and view it in its totality.
None of the defendants testified at trial.
Padilla "trained to kill," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told the jury in closing arguments this week. "That is why this is a murder conspiracy."
After the verdict Thursday, defense lawyers said they were disappointed. During closing arguments, they asked jurors to reject the government's "overreaching" in a time of terrorism fears.
After the verdict, they attributed the jury's findings to "scare tactics" by the prosecution -- specifically, the playing of a 1997 CNN interview with Osama bin Laden.
The prosecution introduced the video as a way of providing context to a wiretapped conversation in which Padilla's co-defendants appeared to discuss the al-Qaeda leader with approval.
"Yea, Osama bin Laden!" Hassoun, the alleged recruiter for the cell, told Jayyousi in the call.
"Allahu Akbar" ("God is the greatest"), Jayyousi responded, according to a translated transcript of the call. "Please tape it."
Since none of the defendants is alleged to have spoken with bin Laden, defense lawyers complained that the interview was used only to arouse in jurors passions and memories associated with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"We thought from the beginning that the Osama bin Laden tape was terribly damaging and terribly irrelevant," said Jeanne Baker, one of Hassoun's attorneys. "It will be one of the issues on appeal."