Jose Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber" who has been at the center of fierce legal and political struggles for more than three years, has been indicted on charges that he conspired to murder individuals overseas and provide support for terrorists, according to federal court documents unsealed yesterday.
The indictment abruptly moves Padilla's case out of the shadows of his confinement in a U.S. Navy brig in South Carolina, where the Brooklyn-born former gang member has been held since President Bush declared him an enemy combatant in 2002. The indictment, handed up by a federal grand jury in Miami last week, names four other defendants.
The Bush administration hopes that the indictment will effectively derail the possibility of an adverse ruling from the Supreme Court in the Padilla case, which could decide to limit the government's ability to detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants.
But Padilla's lawyers said they will continue to pursue their legal challenge with the high court, and legal experts said the outcome is far from clear.
"The indictment is doubtless a strategy by the Bush administration to avoid a Supreme Court ruling that would likely hold that U.S. citizens cannot be detained incommunicado as enemy combatants if they are detained on U.S. soil," said I. Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official who teaches law at the University of Maryland. "There is also some respectable chance that the Supreme Court will not bite on this strategy."
Padilla was initially arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2002 after the government alleged he was plotting a radiological "dirty bomb" attack, but the 31-page indictment unsealed yesterday makes no mention of such a plot. It also does not include separate allegations, outlined by the Justice Department in 2004, that Padilla had plotted with high-ranking al Qaeda operatives to blow up U.S. apartment buildings using natural gas.
Instead, Padilla is charged with being part of a violent terrorism conspiracy rooted in North America but directed at sending money and recruits overseas in order to "murder, kidnap and maim" individuals, according to the indictment.
"The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting in violent jihad," Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said at a news conference in Washington. "Those trained as terrorists engage in acts of physical violence such as murder, maiming, kidnapping and hostage-taking against innocent civilians."
The new charges rely on evidence gathered separately from Padilla's confinement and interrogation in military custody, meaning the government does not have to worry about the admissibility of such evidence in civilian courts, Justice officials said.
Padilla could face life in prison if convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to murder. The two other charges against him, which involve providing material support to terrorists, each carry maximum sentences of 15 years in prison.
Padilla's lawyers argue that his military confinement is unconstitutional under a 2004 ruling by the Supreme Court, which found that another U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant, Yaser Hamdi, had a right to contest his incarceration. Unlike Hamdi, who was detained in Afghanistan, Padilla was arrested on U.S. soil.
The lawyers filed an appeal last month asking the high court to limit the government's power to indefinitely hold U.S. citizens such as Padilla, and the Justice Department is due to submit legal arguments in the case by Monday. Gonzales said the criminal case should make Padilla's appeal irrelevant, because he was seeking to be charged or released.
"Since he has now been charged in a grand jury in Florida, we believe that the petition is moot and that the petition should not be granted," he said.
But Jennifer Martinez, a law professor at Stanford University who is helping defend Padilla, said the appeal remains valid -- in part because his status remains unclear and because other U.S. citizens could still be declared enemy combatants.
An order signed Sunday by Bush transferring Padilla into Gonzales's custody does not address his enemy-combatant status. Justice Department officials declined to comment on the issue, saying only that Padilla is a criminal defendant for the purposes of the indictment.
"There is nothing in the order that says he is not an enemy combatant anymore, so . . . I'd say he still is," Martinez said.
Three of the four defendants named in the indictment along with Padilla were previously charged with conspiracy-related crimes. Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi are in federal custody in Florida; a third, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, is in prison in Egypt. The fourth, Canadian national Kassem Daher, is believed to be overseas, Justice Department officials said.
The case against Jayyousi, a Jordanian-born U.S. citizen, gained notoriety in the Washington area because he worked from 1999 to 2001 as chief of facilities for the D.C. public schools. The indictment unsealed yesterday indicates that Jayyousi, along with Hassoun and Daher, were under U.S. surveillance at least since 1995.
In dozens of conversations, prosecutors allege, the defendants used code words and phrases -- such as "green goods," "soccer game" or "football match" -- to refer to money, terrorist training and jihad, or holy war. There are two unexplained references to buying "zucchini."
The indictment portrays Padilla as being recruited into a terrorist support network run by the other defendants, who, starting as early as 1993, raised money and identified operatives for deployment in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Egypt, Somalia and elsewhere. The document does not identify specific attacks arranged by the group and does not name Padilla as an al Qaeda member, as authorities have alleged.
The indictment links the group to two major figures in terrorist circles: Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheik" who is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up landmarks in New York, and Mohamed Zaky, a founder of Islamic charities who was killed in Chechnya in 1995.
Padilla allegedly completed a mujaheddin "data form" in July 2000 in order to prepare for terrorist training in Afghanistan, which he entered in September 2000, according to the indictment.
Padilla, a former Latin Kings gang member, served time as a juvenile in connection with a gang killing in Chicago. During a later stay in adult prison in Florida on a weapons charge, he converted to a militant form of Islam, according to the government.
Human rights groups that have been critical of the administration's detention policies offered guarded praise for the indictment yesterday.
"It's a welcome development, albeit three years too late," said Jennifer Daskal, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Anybody captured outside the battlefield should be charged or released."
Staff writer Charles Lane and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.