'Combatant' Case to Move From Tribunal To U.S. Court
Friday, February 27, 2009; Page A01
The Justice Department is preparing to announce criminal charges against Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri for allegedly providing material support to al-Qaeda terrorists, sources said, a groundbreaking step that would place the alleged sleeper agent in the purview of the U.S. courts rather than before a military tribunal.
Marri is the last remaining "enemy combatant" in the United States, and he has spent 5 1/2 years in a military brig in South Carolina. Indicting him in a federal district court in central Illinois could avert a Supreme Court ruling that would tie the Obama administration's hands in dealing with future terrorism suspects.
Lawyers for Marri said yesterday that they will press ahead for a Supreme Court hearing in April, hoping to use his case as a vehicle to formally repudiate the Bush administration's position that enemy combatants can be held indefinitely by U.S. authorities.
Justice Department officials are expected to argue that their decision to seek an indictment of Marri renders the Supreme Court case moot and that it should be dismissed, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is at a delicate stage.
Justice Department and White House officials declined to comment on Marri yesterday, as a federal grand jury in Peoria, Ill., met for several hours to consider his case. Criminal charges, which could include conspiracy, could be unveiled as early as today, the sources said.
Marri's prosecution could clear the way for some of the approximately 245 detainees remaining at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be indicted in U.S. courts, though authorities have said significant legal and diplomatic hurdles remain. Among them is whether evidence secured through classified intelligence channels or harsh interrogation techniques is too sensitive or tainted to introduce into the American legal system.
In one of his first steps since taking office last month, President Obama explicitly directed government lawyers to review the status of Marri's case. He also ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview yesterday that review teams of lawyers from several federal agencies are poring over detainee files in an effort to determine "who these people were, who they are and what they've done."
Holder did not rule out the possibility that some of the inmates would be released to allied countries, or that some could be processed through military commissions or other "fair" legal mechanisms. But the administration will act under the presumption that U.S. courts are the "touchstone," he added.
The decision to move Marri into the U.S. courts, where he will be able to assert a host of rights to challenge any evidence against him, comes after lengthy debate at the highest levels of government.
Authorities arrested Marri in Peoria in December 2001, not long after al-Qaeda engineered strikes on New York and the Pentagon. The Qatar native had come to the United States in September of that year with his wife and five children to obtain a master's degree at Bradley University.
After his arrest, Marri faced charges of credit card fraud and other low-level criminal offenses. Since 2003, he has been housed in a South Carolina brig where at points he was subjected to painful stress positions, extreme sensory deprivation and violent threats while he was denied access to lawyers, according to court filings by his legal team. Recent news accounts confirmed by his lawyers suggest that Marri's treatment has improved over time.