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Supreme Court declines case accusing Donald Rumsfeld of torture

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal arguing the US government violated the constitutional rights of citizen José Padilla by detaining and subjecting him to harsh interrogation as an enemy combatant suspected of having links to Al Qaeda.

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Government lawyers argued that the president possessed the authority to take a US citizen out of the criminal justice system and into open-ended military detention without judicial oversight. A federal judge agreed, but was reversed by a federal appeals court panel in New York. The panel ordered Padilla’s release.

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The issue went to the US Supreme Court, which side-stepped the question and decided instead that Padilla’s lawyers had filed their habeas petition in the wrong location.

Since Padilla had been transferred from a New York jail to a military brig in South Carolina, his lawyers would have to start over and file their case in South Carolina.

By that time Padilla had already been in military detention and under interrogation for two years. It would take another year and a half for his habeas petition to again reach the Supreme Court.

Padilla's conviction

When it did, rather than urge the high court to examine the circumstances and legality of Padilla’s detention, the Bush administration rendered the underlying habeas petition moot. It was done by transferring Padilla back into the criminal justice system.  

Padilla was added to an existing indictment in Miami. He was accused with others of conspiring to provide material support to Al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups.

Padilla and his co-defendants were eventually convicted in a 2007 criminal trial. Prosecutors were barred from using information obtained during coercive interrogations – including from Padilla’s 3-1/2 years in military custody.

They introduced what prosecutors said was an official Al Qaeda information form reportedly maintained at a guest house in Afghanistan. They said the document proved that Padilla had received training at an Al Qaeda camp.

Padilla was found guilty of providing himself as a recruit to an organization that engaged in terrorism. Prosecutors offered no evidence at trial that Padilla personally engaged in terrorism, that his actions contributed in any way to a death or injury, or even that he was personally aware of a terror attack conducted by a militant Islamic group – including the 9/11 attacks.

Nonetheless, the jury concluded that Padilla engaged in a conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda knowing or intending that his support would be used to carry out a conspiracy to murder, kidnap, or maim persons overseas. Prosecutors asked for a life sentence. 

Padilla is currently serving his 17-year term in the maximum security wing of the federal prison at Florence, Colo.

“This case tests the judiciary’s commitment to ‘freedom’s first principles,” Wizner said in his brief. “Executive officials have claimed immunity for the torture of a US citizen in South Carolina. In averting its eyes from that misconduct, the court of appeals relegated the defense of a core individual liberty to the political branches alone. Our system of checks and balances cannot tolerate that result.” 

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