Outside editorial: Padilla verdict shows the lie behind 'Gitmo'

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2007

The conviction of Jose Padilla by a jury of his peers demonstrates that accused terrorists can be tried in civilian courts offering a panoply of protections for the defendant. But if Thursday's verdict is a vindication of the rule of law - and a rebuke to those who would circumvent it - the legal shell game to which Padilla was subjected continues to shame the administration.

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In finding the Brooklyn-born convert to Islam and two co-defendants guilty of providing support to terrorist groups abroad, a Miami jury gave the lie to the notion that accused terrorists can be brought to justice only by tribunals - such as the military commissions established at Guantanamo Bay - that lack traditional legal protections.

Indeed, this isn't the first jury to do justice in a terrorism case. Almost a decade ago, a jury in New York convicted the architect of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Last year, a jury in Virginia imposed a life sentence on Zacarias Moussaoui, a confessed conspirator in the even more devastating attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Bush administration was unhappy that Moussaoui wasn't sentenced to death, although it thanked the Padilla jury for "upholding a core American principle of impartial justice for all." In fact, both juries did their duty. In the case of Padilla, however, the administration only filed criminal charges with great reluctance and only because it feared the wrath of the U.S. Supreme Court. That indictment came after Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, was held for 3 ½ years without trial as an enemy combatant on the theory, later discarded, that he planned to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in this country.

In 2004, when the Supreme Court ruled that Yaser Esam Hamdi, another U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant, could challenge his confinement, Justice Antonin Scalia went further. He wrote that "where the government accuses a citizen of waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime." Padilla got his trial far too late and after far too much abuse, but he did get it, as Scalia urged, as Padilla deserved and as the Constitution required.

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