The “guilty” verdict handed down to Jose Padilla (right) and two other defendants (Adham Hassoun and Kifah Jayyousi) on August 16 by a court in Miami is both bizarre and revealing. US government spokesmen hailed the verdict as a major victory in the war on terror, despite the fact that Washington had done everything in its power to prevent the case from ever being heard in a civilian court. “We commend the jury for its work in this trial and thank it for upholding a core American principle of impartial justice for all,” said Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House. “Jose Padilla received a fair trial and a just verdict.”
Such blatant two-facedness was too much even for the establishment’s own mouthpiece, the New York Times, to stomach. In an editorial on August 17 it wrote: “On the way to this verdict, the government repeatedly trampled on the Constitution, and its prosecution of Mr. Padilla was so cynical and inept that the crime he was convicted of—conspiracy to commit terrorism overseas— bears no relation to the ambitious plot to wreak mass destruction inside the United States, which the Justice Department first loudly proclaimed. Even with the guilty verdict, this conviction remains a shining example of how not to prosecute terrorism cases.”
The Times was referring to the allegation first made a month after Padilla’s arrest in May 2002 at Chicago airport as he returned from a trip to Europe. Then US attorney general John Ashcroft interrupted his visit to Moscow and at a press conference alleged that the US government had thwarted a terrorist plot by Padilla that would have destroyed an American city using a nuclear “dirty bomb”. In the Miami court trial, the dirty bomb plot was never mentioned; instead Padilla was charged with making an “application” to join an al-Qa’ida training camp in Afghanistan, and it was inferred from that that he had been plotting to kidnap and kill people overseas. The training-camp charge was made because the prosecution alleged that his fingerprints were found on an application that was “recovered” in Afghanistan. No evidence was provided to support the supposition that Padilla had actually made the application, or that he had ever been to Afghanistan. The paper could have been handed to him while he was in US custody, so that his fingerprints would be on it. Similarly, no evidence was entered in court to show that he had received any training inAfghanistan. The only issue not in question was Padilla’s having travelled to Pakistan to enroll at a madrassa to train as an imam.
The countries where Padilla was allegedly planning to kidnap and kill people were Bosnia and Chechnya, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been butchered by the Serbs and Russians. The war on the Chechens is ongoing and people are still dying. It would appear that in present-day America, anyone wishing to help the victims of genocide is committing a crime. Though Padilla was not charged with the dirty-bomb plot, the US is holding another person, Binyamin Mohamed, at Guantanamo Bay: he is accused of conspiring with Padilla in the same alleged plot.
Padilla’s family and lawyers have said that they will appeal the verdict. Sentencing is scheduled for December but he has already spent more than five years in detention, three-and-a-half of them in total isolation at a naval brig in South Carolina, and suffered physical and mental torture. On the rare occasions when he was taken out of his cell, he was blindfolded and his ears were muffled to maintain his isolation. Dr Angela Hegarty, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, interviewed by Amy Goodman for Democracy Now radio programme on August 16, has narrated her experience of interviewing Padilla for 22 hours to determine the state of his mental health. The Brooklyn-born Padilla was classified by US president George Bush as an “enemy combatant” and stripped of his fundamental rights. “What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind,” said Dr Hegarty. “[Padilla’s] personality was deconstructed and reformed.” She said that the effects of extreme isolation on Padilla are consistent with brain-damage.
The Christian Science Monitor reported: “Padilla’s cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over... He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla’s lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years.” According to his attorneys, Padilla was routinely tortured in ways designed to cause pain, anguish, depression and ultimately the loss of will to live. His lawyers have claimed that Padilla was forced to take LSD and PCP as a sort of truth serum during his interrogations.
After his arrest, Bush said that Padilla would be held indefinitely and would not be allowed access to a lawyer. This was challenged in federal courts, eventually reaching the Supreme Court in 2004. Aware that it would lose in court, the government allowed him to speak to a lawyer before the Supreme Court had a chance to hear the case. In late 2005, the government started to back-pedal on the dirty-bomb story that had been announced with such hysteria by Ashcroft while in Moscow and splashed by the ever-eager Islamophobic media. The Bush administration then came up with a new, equally bizarre theory: Padilla was planning to blow up apartment-buildings with natural gas. It also repeated the claim that the government had the right to hold him indefinitely. The government realized that the court would rule the indefinite detention of a US citizen arrested in the United States without charge as unconstitutional, so it again changed tactics and announced that Padilla would be tried in a federal court in Miami.
When the trial started in Miami earlier this year, the charges contained none of the allegations about the dirty-bomb plot, the apartment-buildings or even Padilla’s presence in Afghanistan in late 2001. Instead, the government alleged that Padilla had conspired in the 1990s to provide support to “overseas jihadists in Bosnia and Chechnya”. Legal experts described even this watered-down case as without legal merit, but Padilla was still found guilty. This is not surprising: in the post-911 climate of hysteria, any Muslim can be assumed to be guilty by definition.
If it is any consolation to Padilla—his fate remains uncertain pending the outcome of his appeal, as well as whether any court will ever hear about the torture he underwent that has left him a mental wreck—others before him have suffered just as badly. The case of Nabil al-Marabh, a Syrian citizen, is similar, although he did not undergo torture on the same scale. Soon after the 911 attacks, he was accused of being the twentieth hijacker. When he was arrested a week later at a pizza restaurant in Chicago, where he was working as a dishwasher, US officials and the media hailed this as a major breakthrough; now the entire “plot” would be revealed, they gloated. A year later, when al-Marabh was brought to court in Buffalo, the only charge against him was illegal entry into the US from Canada. The maximum sentence for that charge is 11 months; he had already spent 13 months behind bars. Even so, he was extradited to Syria, where his fate is unknown.
Equally bizarre was the case of Abdallah Higazy, an Egyptian student who was staying at the Millennium Hotel in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, when the attacks occurred. Soon after, he left the hotel to look for accommodation near his college inBrooklyn. In the meantime, a hotel employee who found a pilot radio in another room claimed it was discovered from Higazy’s room. When he returned to the hotel, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were waiting for him. He was promptly arrested and accused of being the hijackers’ accomplice, especially Mohamed Atta, who like Higazy was Egyptian. Other fantastic allegations were also made and no protestations of innocence were believed.
In December he was brought to trial, and the prosecution spun a fantastic story about how Higazy had guided the planes onto the World Trade Centre towers. In January, while the trial was still going on, an American pilot came to the hotel looking for his radio, which he said he had forgotten in his room. The pilot had stayed in a room on the 50th floor, one below Higazy’s. Once the pilot came forward, the hotel management phoned the FBI advising them that the radio’s real owner, an American pilot, had come forward to claim it. Only then was the case against Higazy dropped.
Padilla is the victim of a similar witch-hunt by a cabal of neo-conservatives who thrive on creating fear and hysteria to achieve their nefarious designs. They do not care if, in the process, they destroy lives. The America of the neo-conservatives is even worse than the picture drawn by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.