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US antiterror tactics crimp new terror case

Some of the strongest evidence against Jose Padilla, whose trial begins Monday, was coerced and can't be used in court.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 2007


When Jose Padilla was taken into custody at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, government officials announced with great fanfare that he was plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in a major US city.

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Now, five years later, Mr. Padilla is about to stand trial in federal court here. But there is no mention of a dirty bomb plot anywhere in the case.

It is not an oversight. A criminal trial is not intended to be a history lesson. Instead, to protect Padilla's right to a fair trial, the case against him is based on a much more skimpy presentation of evidence.

The omission illustrates a fundamental tension between the Bush administration's iron-fisted approach to intelligence gathering in the war on terror and a US citizen's entitlement to constitutional and other protections of the criminal-justice system.

The alleged dirty-bomb plot was uncovered through the use of coercive interrogation tactics – torture according to Padilla and others – which renders the information too unreliable to be admitted in an American court. As a result, federal prosecutors were forced to build their Miami conspiracy case using evidence obtained through noncoercive means and investigative methods that did not violate core constitutional guarantees.

Barring the dirty bomb and other improperly obtained evidence from the criminal case has greatly complicated prosecution efforts to win a conviction and potentially put Padilla behind bars for the rest of his life.

But at the same time, defense lawyers are worried that their client's pretrial notoriety as the Al Qaeda "Dirty Bomber" could make it impossible for Padilla to receive a fair trial.

US District Judge Marcia Cooke is expected to press hard this week to try to find 12 jurors and six alternates who have never heard of Padilla, or who are able to put any knowledge of the dirty bomb allegations aside and base their deliberations solely on the evidence and testimony presented in the courtroom.

Conspiracy case with no specific plot

Unlike most terror-conspiracy cases, the case against Padilla and his two co-defendants does not focus on any particular plot or attack. Instead, prosecutors say the defendants violated US law by participating in a North American support cell that sent money and recruits to a wide variety of radical Muslim groups overseas. It is the overseas Muslim groups that engaged in violent jihad, or holy war.

Padilla's part in the alleged conspiracy, prosecutors say, is that he became a willing recruit who traveled to the Middle East and Afghanistan, where he signed up for military training with Al Qaeda.

Padilla's lawyers tell a different story. They say their client is a Muslim convert from south Florida who traveled to the Mideast to further his study of Islam. He has an Egyptian wife, whom he met while a student in Cairo, and two small children.

Another defendant – the alleged leader of the support cell – is Adham Amin Hassoun, a Palestinian who fled Lebanon as a refugee in the 1980s and settled in south Florida. He has suggested in the past that he was targeted for investigation after the 9/11 attacks because of his outspoken political beliefs.