Mar. 1, 2005 – In the latest judicial rebuke of President Bush, a federal judge ruled yesterday that the government must release JosÃ© Padilla, an American citizen who the military has held for almost three years without charging him with a crime. Since shortly after his May 2002 arrest at Chicagoâ€™s O'Hare International Airport, the government has detained Padilla as an "enemy combatant," a designation concocted by the Bush administration to allow it to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely without filing criminal charges or providing access to legal avenues.
US authorities detained Padilla under suspicion that he was involved in a terrorist plot to detonate a radioactive bomb in the United States. Though formal charges were never brought against him, he has remained imprisoned by the US military, spending most of his detention in a US military brig in South Carolina. Civil rights groups have heavily criticized the government for Padillaâ€™s detention and have long maintained that the president has no authority to indefinitely lock up American citizens, denying them due process. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have challenged the government to prove in a court of law the accusations it has used as justification to imprison Padilla.
In a ruling that echoes several recent federal court decisions, US District Judge Henry Floyd, a Bush appointee, agreed that the government must press charges against Padilla or release him.
"[T]he Court finds that the President has no power -- neither express nor implied, neither constitutional nor statutory -- to hold Petitioner as an enemy combatant," wrote Floyd in his 32-page decision. To find for the government in this case, he said, would "be to engage in judicial activism" and would "not only offend the rule of law and violate this countryâ€™s constitutional tradition, but it would also be a betrayal of this nationâ€™s commitment to the separation of powers that safeguards our democratic values and individual liberties."
While the Justice Department said it would appeal Floydâ€™s ruling, civil libertarians claimed triumph.
"This decision is a victory for basic freedoms and the rule of law," Jumana Musa, advocacy director for Amnesty International USAâ€™s Domestic Human Rights and International Justice program, said in a written statement. "It confirms well-established principles under US and international law that prohibit the arbitrary detention of anyone without charge or trial. This is another rejection of the premise pushed by the Bush administration claiming absolute power of the executive. Judge Floyd has now joined the chorus of voices repudiating the policy of indefinite detention at the sole, unreviewable discretion of the president, sending the message that this administration is not beyond the law."
While the military has held hundreds of foreign nationals as enemy combatants at its detention center at GuantÃ¡namo Bay Cuba, Padilla is one of just two people with US citizenship to be so labeled. The other was Yaser Esam Hamdi , a dual Saudi and US citizen, who the administration released last year only after he agreed to move to Saudi Arabia, renounce his American citizenship and live under travel restrictions.