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Freedom in America must be protected in times of trouble


Published: Fri, September 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.


Who predicted that freedom and human rights in the United States were doomed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?
None other than Osama bin Laden, in an interview he gave to Al Jazeera about a month after 9/11.
It is frightening to contemplate that bin Laden could be prescient.
But we are obliged to consider the possibility, given the way too many federal courts (including a district court panel that included John G. Roberts Jr., now the nominee for chief justice) have ruled in cases involving suspected terrorists.
In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, a three-judge panel upheld President Bush's creation of special military tribunals for trials of alleged terrorists who have been held for years at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Judge Roberts and one colleague on the panel also ruled that the detainees are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions. The third judge dissented on that part of the ruling.
The United States has long held itself out as a beacon of freedom and an example of fair treatment. To have a chief justice who would abet the abrogation of the Geneva Conventions does nothing to burnish the U.S. image abroad.
The Padilla case
The more troubling recent court case, however, does not involve Roberts It is the case of Jose Padilla, who may be a criminal, and may even be inclined to be a terrorist, but is -- unlike those being held at Guantanamo -- a U.S. citizen.
The Constitution is quite clear about the rights afforded a citizen. None shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law. If a person is jailed, he has a right to be charged and to face his accuser in a speedy and public trial.
A three-judge appeals-court panel has ruled unanimously that in the case of Padilla, President Bush has the right to suspend these constitutional protections and keep him locked up indefinitely. Padilla has been held in a military prison for over three years following his arrest when he got off a plane in Chicago.
His background is that of a thug and petty criminal, but the administration maintains that he is now an Al-Qaida-trained terrorist who was plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb."
A lower court ruled that the government has to try Padilla or let him go, which would seem to be what any reading of the Constitution would require. Indeed, the Supreme Court has already heard a similar case, that of a young U.S.-born Saudi, Yaser Esam Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan. The court ruled that Hamdi could challenge his detention in the federal courts, but before the case could be pushed to a resolution, the Bush administration let Hamdi go home to Saudi Arabia. A person who was so dangerous he had to be held incommunicado one day was sent on his merry way the next.
If President Bush is given the authority to declare Jose Padilla an enemy combatant -- a phrase that is not found in the Constitution -- and order him held indefinitely without charges and without trial, he can do so to any other American. And that makes bin Laden's prediction about the future of freedom in America frighteningly accurate.


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