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Friday, March 04, 2005

Padilla's Indefinite Detention Puts Your Rights At Risk

Picture yourself in this scenario.

You're a U.S. citizen landing at a major airport from abroad. You're pulled out of line at customs, arrested, thrown in jail for a month and then spirited off to a military prison.

Nearly three years later, you're still there, never charged with any crime. The government claims it can hold you forever without answering to any judge or court.

The scenario is not fiction. It's happening now. Only a federal judge in South Carolina is standing in the way. At stake is the constitutional guarantee of every American to be free from arbitrary imprisonment.

Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen born in Brooklyn, N.Y., was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in May 2002. He's still being held. No charges have been filed.

Despite the clear language of the Constitution that prohibits detention without trial, the Bush administration insists that it can indefinitely hold Padilla - or anyone else it chooses - as an "enemy combatant" without trial or even formal charges.

Padilla is one of a handful of Americans known to have been swept up in the war on terror, but he is the lone suspect not released or handled by the courts. So far, he has received only indictment by press conference - and with dubious credibility at that.

The Justice Department first claimed Padilla was sent home by al-Qaeda to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb" in Washington. That scenario was downplayed last year in favor of new allegations: An alleged plan to blow up high-rise apartment buildings using natural gas. Still no charges, still no trial.

In South Carolina on Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd ordered the government to either try Padilla or let him go. Floyd, a Bush appointee, ruled that the government had failed to cite any law or legal precedent to justify holding him indefinitely.

Defenders of the administration argue that Padilla is dangerous. Putting him on trial, they say, could endanger intelligence sources that provided evidence against him.

Perhaps he is a threat. Perhaps there's reason for suspicion but not enough evidence to convict. Or perhaps the government erred in arresting him and would rather not admit it. Without a trial, there's no way to find out.

For obvious reasons, the Constitution denies the president or his aides the power to decide by themselves that a citizen can be imprisoned indefinitely without judicial review. Armed with such power, an administration could imprison its political opponents or silence them with the threat.

Yes, there is a risk that if Padilla is freed he might make trouble. But tracking potential criminals is a job intelligence and police agencies can handle. The cost of setting a precedent that presidents can jail whomever they choose would be far greater.

This case is not just about Jose Padilla. It's about every citizen's liberty. If the foundations of freedom crumble under the stresses of the war on terrorism, the terrorists will have won.

Copyright: USAToday.com


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