Jose Padilla's Due Process

Friday, August 17, 2007

JOSE PADILLA finally had his day in court.

After nearly five years in federal custody, Mr. Padilla and two co-defendants were convicted yesterday on three terrorism-related counts. The months of trial in South Florida were remarkable for being relatively unremarkable: Prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was a member of al-Qaeda intent on using violence to advance that group's extremist goals. Defense lawyers tried to debunk those claims and offered an alternative interpretation of the evidence. A jury bought the government's case and delivered its verdict in less than 48 hours, leaving Mr. Padilla to face roughly 15 years to life behind bars, unless he prevails in an appeal.

What was extraordinary, and reprehensible, was how long Mr. Padilla had to wait for the kind of due process most Americans take for granted.

Mr. Padilla was detained in 2002 in Chicago on suspicion that he was trying to assemble a "dirty bomb." He was first designated a "material witness" and later an "enemy combatant" and held in federal detention cells or military brigs for years by a government intent on keeping him out of a federal court system where he would be endowed with rights -- including access to a lawyer. In this alternative universe, government interrogators, with no checks from any other authority, used sensory and sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and other forms of abuse to squeeze information from the prisoner. Mr. Padilla was, in short, "disappeared" into a system with methods we object to in the strongest terms when they are used in police states around the world.

The administration finally agreed to prosecute Mr. Padilla in federal court only when the U.S. Supreme Court seemed ready to repudiate the government's treatment of Mr. Padilla and order his transfer to the federal courts.

Does the orderly disposition of Mr. Padilla's court case prove that every terrorism prosecution can and should be channeled through U.S. courts? No, although civil libertarians will make that case, there will be genuine enemy combatants who may not belong in civilian courts. But every person held by the government -- U.S. citizen or not -- must have due process to challenge that detention. The presumption must be that U.S. citizens can rely on the federal courts to oversee their prosecutions. And Mr. Padilla's abhorrent disappearance into limbo should come to be remembered as an aberration never to be repeated.

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