Court Rebuffs Bush on Civilian Detainee

A federal appeals court has ruled the Bush administration does not have the authority to hold a civilian indefinitely in military detention.

The plaintiff, a suspected terrorist captured within the United States, has a right to habeas corpus, according to a ruling (PDF) today by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A federal law barring habeas for enemy combatants does not apply because the president had no authority to detain the man in the first place, according to a 2-1 decision by the court, based in Richmond, Va.

The suspect, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, must be released in a reasonable time period, the court said. However, the court said he can be turned over to civilian prosecutors to be tried on criminal charges.

The ruling is a major blow to the Bush administration’s assertion of broad powers to fight terrorism, according to the Washington Post.

Al-Marri, a citizen of Qatar, entered the United States legally on Sept. 10, 2001, to pursue a Master’s degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. The terrorist attacks took place the next day.

Al-Marri was arrested as a material witness in December 2001 and imprisoned in civilian jails. He was charged with possessing counterfeit credit card numbers, making false statements to the FBI, and making false statements to a bank, according to the opinion.

The government moved to dismiss charges and transfer al-Marri to military custody after he filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained by torture. An order by President Bush declared al-Marri to be an enemy combatant closely associated with al-Qaida who presents a grave danger to the United States.

“Since that time (that is, for four years) the military has held al-Marri as an enemy combatant, without charge and without any indication when this confinement will end,” the court said.

“The president’s constitutional powers do not allow him to order the military to seize and detain indefinitely al-Marri without criminal process any more than they permit the president to order the military to seize and detain, without criminal process, other terrorists within the United States, like the Unabomber or the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing,” the court said.

Only two other men have been held as enemy combatants on the American mainland, the New York Times reports. They are Yaser Hamdi, who was released to Saudi Arabia, and Jose Padilla, on trial now on terrorism charges.

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