Padilla Appeals His U.S. Captivity

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals hears arguments in the appeal by Jose Padilla, who has been labeled an enemy combatant by the Bush adminstration and imprisoned at a naval base in South Carolina. The administration has said Padilla meant to explode a dirty bomb, one containing radioactive material. Padilla says the president has no right to imprison him without charges.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A federal appeals court heard arguments today on whether Jose Padilla can be imprisoned indefinitely without charges. Padilla is an American citizen accused of involvement in a dirty bomb plot against the United States. The Bush administration classified him as an enemy combatant and says that means he has no right to an attorney or a trial. But a federal judge this year ordered the government to charge Padilla with a crime or let him go. The government appealed, and NPR's Ari Shapiro was in Richmond, Virginia, today to hear the arguments before the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Ari joins us from downtown Richmond near the courthouse.

Ari, thanks for being with us.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And remind us please how Jose Padilla came into US custody.

SHAPIRO: He was arrested in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. And initially when he was arrested, government authorities designated him a material witness to terrorism. Then after he'd been in prison for a while, they designated him an enemy combatant, which meant he did not need access to a lawyer; he was not brought up on formal criminal charges. And his is one of the very few cases we know of an American citizen being arrested in the United States and being designated an enemy combatant, which is why this case has received so much attention.

Over the more than three years that he's been in detention, his case has gone before the Supreme Court. But the court said that his case came from the wrong part of the country. They sent it back to South Carolina, where a federal judge told the government they had to bring charges or release him, as you mentioned. And today the government appealed that ruling here in Richmond.

BLOCK: Now when they made their arguments today before the federal appeals court panel, what did the government say? What was their argument for keeping Jose Padilla in custody?

SHAPIRO: Solicitor General Paul Clement represented the government, and he described Padilla as someone who had trained with al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That's not something the government has proved, but Clement said they could prove it in court if asked. He said that Padilla then came to the US with the express intention of attacking Americans. And he said it just didn't make sense to argue that the president had less power to detain enemy combatants as those combatants came closer to their targets in the US.

Now one of the three judges on the panel, Michael Luttig, seemed to strongly advocate for the government. And he seemed to encourage the government to argue that the United States is part of the battlefield in the war on terror, which would mean that Jose Padilla was arrested on the battlefield.

BLOCK: Now what about the attorneys for Jose Padilla? How did they present their case?

SHAPIRO: The attorneys for Jose Padilla said that this was not a case about their client being released. They said the issue is whether he should be brought up on charges like any other criminal or held for more than three years without charges, as he's been. They framed this as a case of basic constitutional rights. The lawyer for Padilla at one point said, `I must be the only criminal defense lawyer in the history of this court ever to stand before the judge and say "Please indict my client."' They said they're happy to defend their client in court; they just want him to be given a chance to defend himself.

BLOCK: There was an earlier case of another US citizen held as an enemy combatant. That was Yaser Hamdi. Did that case come up in the arguments today?

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. They talked quite a bit about Hamdi. Hamdi was very similar to Padilla in many ways: Hamdi was a US citizen; he was held as an enemy combatant; he was championed by civil liberties advocates. The difference between Hamdi and Padilla was that Hamdi was picked up overseas in Afghanistan; Padilla was picked up in the United States. And the Supreme Court ruled that the US government could classify Hamdi as an enemy combatant. So, really, the question that the court focused on today was how big a difference it makes whether a US citizen is picked up overseas or here in the United States, as to whether the government can then hold that person without charges.

BLOCK: Argument and questions from one of the appellate judges, Michael Luttig. Was there any sign, based on any of the other questions from the judges, on where they might be leaning here?

SHAPIRO: Well, there were three judges on the panel. Michael Luttig, as I mentioned, seemed to heavily favor the government. One of the other three judges seemed to support the case of Padilla's lawyers. And the third judge was nearly silent the entire hourlong hearing. So it's really difficult to predict how this case could turn out.

BLOCK: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

BLOCK: NPR's Ari Shapiro in Richmond, Virginia, where a federal appeals court panel today heard arguments in the case of Jose Padilla.

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