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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
If Rat Saddam Gets A Fair Trial, Why Not Padilla?
December 21, 2003
Mass-murderer Saddam Hussein will get justice. He'll have a trial, most likely in Iraq where he committed decades of atrocities. He'll have a lawyer, perhaps a slew of them to decipher every charge against him.
At his trial, Saddam the dictator will be able to smear the United States for its complicity in propping him up during the Iraq-Iran war in the1980s. A tyrant responsible for the deaths of 300,000 of his own people and the suffering of millions of others, Saddam nevertheless deserves a trial, President George W. Bush tells us.
Well, yes, in a civilized society the law is the law, and even the most heinous of criminals can rebut the charges against them. The Geneva Conventions give prisoners of war, even rats like Saddam, such rights.
That is what distinguishes democratic justice from dictatorial tyranny. There's a process in the international arena. There are checks and balances.
The right to know the charges against you. The right to a lawyer. The right to a fair trial. Those are all enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, too.
So why has Bush denied those rights to Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomb suspect who has been confined to a military prison since the summer of 2002 after he was detained in Chicago upon his return from Pakistan?
How can the Bush administration argue that the war on terror demands locking up U.S. citizens like Padilla as "enemy combatants" when they weren't caught fighting U.S. troops overseas?
For that matter, how can the administration hold foreigners indefinitely at the Guantanamo base in Cuba in the name of a war on terror that the president has stated has no clear ending? That's an issue the U.S. Supreme Court will decide. Already, two appellate courts have submitted conflicting rulings.
Last week, a New York appellate court put the president on notice about his unilateral tactics in the Padilla case. The Puerto Rican former gang member who converted to Islam may be a danger to us all. He may indeed have been part of a plot to spread radioactive poison to our citizens. He may be as evil as Saddam himself, but the United States can't just hold Padilla indefinitely without any charges, without access to a lawyer and without a trial. Let's try him and, if found guilty, send him to prison for a long time -- for life even.
"Presidential authority," the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, "does not exist in a vacuum." The court ordered the government to release Padilla from military custody within 30 days, but it gave the feds several options: Either bring criminal charges against Padilla in civilian court or hold him as a material witness in grand-jury proceedings. In both options, there's a process, a check-and-balance to ensure fairness and justice both to the suspect and to society at large.
The New York court's decision was very narrowly defined to focus solely on Americans accused of terrorist activity on U.S. soil. During World War II, Congress gave the president such broad powers, but the unfair internment of innocent Japanese-Americans on U.S. soil during that war ought to have taught America a painful lesson. How quickly we want to forget. After the internment fiasco, Congress passed a law clarifying that no U.S. citizen could be detained during wartime except with a clear mandate from Congress. It is that law, as well as constitutional protections, that the appellate court said Bush must follow.
Civil libertarians aren't the only ones decrying war-on-terror tactics. Many conservatives understand the implications of our government being able to detain U.S. citizens and lock them out of the justice system, without any ability to defend themselves from accusations that the government, in the name of national security, keeps secret.
The Pentagon recently decided in the case of Yasser Esam Hamdi, a U.S.-born Saudi captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces, that he would get access to a lawyer. The Supreme Court hasn't decided whether to hear Hamdi's case. Why the double standard?
Padilla wasn't fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else. He may be scum, but he deserves the same justice that an Iraqi rat caught in a hole is about to get.
To protect America from terrorism, we have to be ever vigilant. To throw out the Constitution doesn't protect us -- it destroys everything for which America stands. Freedom. Justice. Human Rights. Everything.