By Peter Whoriskey and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
MIAMI, Jan. 22 -- Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member originally accused of plotting with al-Qaeda to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on U.S. soil, was sentenced on Tuesday to 17 years in prison on less dramatic charges.
The sentencing brought an end to years of high-profile legal battles that tested the limits of presidential power and the government's ability to hold American terrorism suspects indefinitely without charging them. In handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke also implicitly criticized the government's treatment of Padilla during the time it held him without charges.
The ruling marks a major setback in a terrorism prosecution for the Justice Department, which had urged Cooke to sentence Padilla to life in prison.
Prosecutors already had been forced to drop the "dirty bomb" allegation and pressed ahead with a case involving less specific charges of support for terrorism and conspiracy. They won convictions against Padilla, 37, and two co-defendants in August, but Cooke's sentence means that he could be freed in his early 50s.
"Hallelujah," his mother, Estela Lebron, told reporters.
Accused at trial of conspiring to aid Islamic militants in Chechnya, Somalia and elsewhere, Padilla and his two co-defendants were convicted by a jury of participating in a "conspiracy to murder, maim or kidnap." But, Cooke, a Bush appointee, seemed to look askance at key prosecution claims, noting, "There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere."
Moreover, in rejecting the government's plea for a life sentence, Cooke said she took into consideration what she called the "harsh" conditions that Padilla suffered for 3 1/2 years after he was arrested in 2002.
Detained without charges as an "enemy combatant," he was held at a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Padilla's attorneys have alleged that he was tortured through a combination of sleep deprivation, stress positions and isolation. Prosecutors had sought to keep consideration of his time in the brig from becoming a part of the case.
But, Cooke said, "I do find that the conditions were so harsh for Mr. Padilla . . . they warrant consideration in the sentencing in this case."
Cooke also handed down prison terms of more than 15 years to Adham Amin Hassoun, 45, whom Padilla looked to as a spiritual mentor; and more than 12 years to Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 46, who prosecutors said helped finance radical Islamic military efforts overseas.
The Justice Department did not disclose whether it would pursue an appeal. Nor did officials comment on the relative leniency of the sentences for the men.
In a statement, Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, said that "the defendants' North American support cell has been dismantled and can no longer send money and jihadist recruits to conflicts overseas."
Padilla, a Brooklyn-born convert to Islam, was arrested returning to the United States at O'Hare International Airport in 2002 and was soon designated an enemy combatant by President Bush.
The case was announced at the time with great fanfare by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other Bush administration officials, who portrayed Padilla as working on a plot to detonate a "dirty bomb" inside the United States.
Authorities later alleged that Padilla attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, met with senior al-Qaeda leaders and planned to blow up U.S. apartment buildings with natural gas. Initially, he was not granted access to an attorney.
His case became a key test of Bush administration claims that U.S. citizens could be held indefinitely and without charges as "enemy combatants" in the efforts against terrorism. Once the Supreme Court seemed to tilt against that tactic, the administration moved him to the criminal justice system, where he was charged and tried.
But the Miami court case did not include any mention of the "dirty bomb" or natural gas explosion plots, largely because much of the evidence had been obtained through interrogations of Padilla, Sept. 11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other al-Qaeda prisoners that would not be admissible in regular criminal courts.
The trial did include a written form that Padilla filled out in 2000 when he attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, as well as thousands of telephone conversations intercepted by the FBI during an eight-year probe.
Federal prosecutors portrayed Padilla and his co-defendants as participants in an effort to spread "violent jihad" across the globe. Defense attorneys characterized their efforts overseas as "humanitarian," and last week his co-defendants told the judge that they were moved to help Muslims overseas after watching their slaughter in Bosnia.
"I have nobody's blood on my hands," Jayyousi told the judge last week during the sentencing phase.
Padilla did not testify in his own defense and did not choose to address the court before his sentencing. As a result, he remains to court observers as much a mystery as he did more than five years ago after his high-profile arrest.
Eggen reported from Washington.