The guilty verdict against Jose Padilla showed the Bush administration could win a high-profile terrorism conviction despite questions over whether it acted legally in detaining the U.S. citizen for 3-1/2 years without charges.
But critics and law experts called Thursday’s verdict a messy win for the government, in which it was able to avoid answering for its long detention and interrogation of Padilla without the legal rights normally granted U.S. citizens, and, his lawyers said, for torturing him.
Some said it showed that the administration still lacks a workable system for trying terrorism suspects nearly six years after the September 11 attacks.
“The verdict is important because it provides cover. It validates the government’s tactics in a way that the jury may not have necessarily meant to,” said American University law professor Stephen Vladeck.
“Padilla has had his day in court, but only with respect to the charges, and not to his treatment and not the lawfulness of his detention for 3-1/2 years in a Navy brig,” Vladeck said.
Amnesty International said “President Bush should not take (the verdict) as permission to continue to hold Americans outside the law at his whim.”
The administration claimed victory in the verdict, in which a federal jury in Miami convicted Padilla and two co-defendants on charges of offering their services to terrorists.
Padilla, a U.S. convert to Islam, was arrested in 2002 and initially accused of plotting a radiological “dirty bomb” attack. President George W. Bush ordered him held in a military prison as an illegal “enemy combatant.”
“A DIRTY VICTORY”
But faced with legal challenges to Bush’ authority to jail a person without charge, prosecutors added Padilla to an existing terrorism support case in Miami and never charged him with any bomb plot.
“It’s kind of a dirty victory because of the way the case came about, but still it’s a victory nonetheless,” said Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.
“I think it was the right verdict,” he said.
He said the administration is still trying to come up with an efficient system for trying terrorism suspects, after trying to rely on international “laws of war” to hold Padilla.
The Padilla case showed that U.S. terrorism suspects and foreigners such as those held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba can be tried in civilian courts, said Michael Greenberger, law professor and director of the Center for Health and Homeland security at the University of Maryland.
“A lot of resources were wasted … by the attempt to expand executive power,” he said.
Furthermore, U.S. prestige abroad was eroded by the administration’s handling of the case, which was seen as an effort to circumvent constitutional protections, he said.
Bush has tried to implement a system of military commissions to try the Guantanamo suspects, but he has lost court challenges.
Acting Deputy U.S. Attorney General Craig Morford acknowledged after the verdict that civilian courts can handle some terrorism cases. But other cases involving national security, classified information or other complications may not be suited for civilian courts, he said.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: “Each case has to be looked on an individual basis … some might be an American citizen, but many are not, as are most held in Guantanamo Bay. And I think that’s an important distinction.”