MIAMI (AFP) – US terror suspect Jose Padilla, detained for over three years without charges as an “enemy combatant,” appeared in court for the first time after being flown to Miami from a military prison.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, Padilla replied “yes, I do,” when asked by federal magistrate Barry Garber whether he understood his rights.
The subject of a fierce tug-of-war between the administration of President George W. Bush and civil liberties groups, Padilla was flown to the preliminary hearing at a heavily guarded federal courtroom in Miami from a naval brig in South Carolina.
Prosecutors said they would request that Padilla be held on a “no bond status,” meaning he could not be released pending trial.
Thursday’s appearance only lasted about five minutes, and an arraignment, when Padilla will be formally charged, was set for 4:00 pm (2100 GMT) on Friday.
Arrested in Chicago’s O’Hare airport in May 2002 after returning from Pakistan, Padilla was alleged by federal officials to be a member of Al-Qaeda and to have plotted to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” on US soil.
They maintained since then that as an “enemy combatant” in a time of war, Padilla did not have to be produced in court and could be detained indefinitely.
In September, a US appeals court ruled that Bush had the powers to hold Padilla under those conditions.
But, after Padilla’s lawyers moved to challenge his military detention in the Supreme Court, in an abrupt reversal in November, US authorities unveiled a civilian indictment against him, which made no mention of the alleged bomb plot.
He is now charged with conspiracy to “murder, kidnap and maim” abroad. His case was added to an existing civilian criminal indictment against an alleged US and Canada-based terror cell charged with supporting foreign jihadists.
That led the same appeals court to block the transfer to civilian hand for trial. The court pointed out that the government had failed to explain why the civilian indictment made no mention of the acts for which Padilla purportedly needed to be held in military detention.
However, the Supreme Court on Wednesday overruled the lower court, clearing the way for his transfer to Miami.
That was seen as a victory for the Bush administration, as it was able to avert a Supreme Court battle based on the Padilla case over the president’s power to hold US citizens as “enemy combatants.”
The Supreme Court is expected to decide within two weeks whether to hear that case, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declared there now was no longer any reason for a hearing, because Padilla was being placed in civilian custody.
Padilla, alias Abdullah al-Mujahir, was born in Brooklyn, New York. A former member of a Chicago street gang, he is a convert to Islam.