Accused American Terrorist Goes on Trial

It was U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft who announced the arrest of Jose Padilla in 2002. Ashcroft said the Bush administration had thwarted a plot by al Qaeda to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in an American city. But when Padilla goes on trial Monday in Miami, there will be no mention of dirty bombs.

Padilla is charged with conspiring with terrorists — serious charges that could carry a life sentence — but not what he was accused of when he was arrested in Chicago and declared an enemy combatant.

Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil was held in a military brig, without charges, for three and a half years. For the first two years he did not have access to a lawyer. The Bush administration claims it can hold those it deems enemy combatants indefinitely.

Two days before the Supreme Court was set to hear Padilla's challenge to that assertion, the administration transferred him to civilian custody and filed criminal charges against him.

Padilla's lawyers, among others, have accused the Bush administration of filing those charges to avoid having the Supreme Court rule against it.

Walter Dellinger, a professor at Duke University's School of Law, calls the Padilla case the latest chapter in the Bush administration's effort to fight the war on terror without oversight by Congress or the courts.

"The larger issue is whether the executive branch of government can arrest an American citizen on American soil and hold that person … without any judge passing judgment, merely on the executive branch's assertion that [the] individual is an enemy combatant."

That issue, he said, must still be decided.

Padilla claims he was mistreated by American interrogators during his detainment in a military brig. But he will not be allowed to make that accusation in his trial because none of the evidence presented by the government was obtained during that period.

"That may be the reason why the government dropped the charges about a dirty bomb," said Dellinger, "because his alleged admissions … may have been the result of his alleged abusive treatement."

Padilla's trial is expected to last through the summer.