Mr. Marri's Day in Court
How the Supreme Court could help prevent the lawless treatment of future terrorism suspects

Friday, March 6, 2009

HE ARRIVED in the United States on Sept. 10, 2001. He was arrested three months later and charged in an Illinois federal court with credit card fraud. In 2003, President George W. Bush yanked him out of the federal court system and sent him to a military jail in South Carolina. Now, after nearly six years of detention, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri has been ordered back into the federal system, where he may finally get his day in court.

President Obama late last month directed the Defense Department to relinquish control of Mr. Marri to federal law enforcement officials. On the same day, an indictment charging Mr. Marri with conspiracy and providing material support to a terrorist organization was unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois. When he was arrested in 2001, law enforcement officials said they found evidence that Mr. Marri was part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell intent on sabotaging the U.S. financial system; they said they also found information about bombs and chemical weapons on Mr. Marri's computer. Mr. Marri, a Qatari citizen who was in the United States legally when arrested, may very well be a dangerous man. But even allegedly dangerous men deserve a chance to face their accusers and legally fight for their freedom. The Obama administration is right to insist that Mr. Marri be given that chance.

Lawyers for Mr. Marri have been pressing the government for years to release him or charge him in federal court; the Supreme Court was to hear an appeal by Mr. Marri in April challenging the president's authority to indefinitely detain without charge a person who was lawfully in the country and has been designated an enemy combatant.

The justices should dispose of the case, since there is no longer a live controversy. They should also take the affirmative step of vacating the lower court ruling that served as the basis of Mr. Marri's appeal. That ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sided with the Bush administration and recognized the president's right to indefinitely hold Mr. Marri. Vacating the judgment would erase the precedential power of the decision. Not only would this provide a greater guarantee that Mr. Marri will remain in the federal system and be tried in it, but it would help ensure that no other president would have at the ready a court decision essentially allowing him or her to "disappear" another person. And it would send a message that any future such attempt would not sit well with the justices.

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