June 26, 2006 – Last Friday marked the third anniversary of an episode human rights activists consider among the darkest in the domestic campaign against terrorism: the imprisonment as of Qatari national Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri as an â€œenemy combatant.â€�
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In the three years since Al-Marri was relegated to indefinite isolation in a South Carolina military brig by President Bush, he has not been formally charged with any crime. In fact, tangible charges were rescinded in order to bestow upon him the murky enemy-combatant label.
The human-rights group Amnesty International issued a statement on Friday demanding Al-Marriâ€™s release unless he is formally charged with a crime, and in the meantime, immediate measures to improve his condition, which, according to written complaints, have entailed physical as well as emotional mistreatment.
Al-Marri shares the label applied to several hundred terrorism suspects now detained at the GuantÃ¡namo Bay facility in Cuba, which the Bush administration claims is largely outside the jurisdiction of US courts. Al-Marri is the only enemy combatant currently known to be held within domestic territorial borders.
In a legal complaint filed in a South Carolina district court against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield in 2005, Al-Marriâ€™s attorneys alleged he had â€œsuffered inhumane, degrading, and physically and psychologically abusive treatment at the brig in violation of this countryâ€™s most basic laws and fundamental norms.â€�
Al-Marri is the only enemy combatant currently known to be held within domestic territorial borders.
The complaint charged that he had been confined in a tiny cell, unable to access religious materials or to engage in prayer, was not given hot meals, and was deprived of necessary medical and psychological care. Al-Marri also claimed through his attorneys that his handlers had censored his mail and confiscated correspondence with legal counsel.
Reflecting similar testimony by GuantÃ¡namo detainees, the complaint also described deliberate exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures, humiliating treatment in interrogations, and painful shackling.
Amnesty International said of the alleged abuse, â€œThe detention regime created by this ambiguous status of â€˜enemy combatantâ€™â€¦ creates the legal equivalent of GuantÃ¡namo on the mainland.â€�
Al-Marri, who said he came to the United States in 2001 to pursue a graduate degree, was apprehended in December of that year by FBI agents as a â€œmaterial witness,â€� supposedly tied to the September 11 terrorist attacks. The government claimed he was an Al-Qaeda operative and said he had trained at one of the terrorist networkâ€™s camps.
According to legal filings, Al-Marri was initially charged with credit-card fraud, making false statements to FBI authorities and other counts, but he pleaded not guilty. As he prepared to go to trial in July 2003, the initiation of strictures known as â€œspecial administrative measuresâ€� abruptly terminated Al-Marriâ€™s access to legal counsel in late May that year. Less than one month later, Bush signed an order changing his status to enemy combatant, and the charges were dismissed.
Lawyers noted that Al-Marri was deemed an enemy combatant far away from any actual combat zone and long after any alleged crime linked to him had actually taken place.
The Justice Department's criminal division stood by its original charges shortly after dropping them.
"We are confident we would have prevailed on the criminal charges," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher told the Associated Press. "However, setting the criminal charges aside is in the best interests of our national security."
Al-Marri filed a habeas corpus petition in July 2003 challenging his detention as an enemy combatant, which was denied first by an Illinois federal district court and again on appeal. A ruling by the South Carolina court is expected soon on another petition filed in July 2004.
Al-Marriâ€™s brother, Jarallah, is currently detained at GuantÃ¡namo Bay as an enemy combatant.
In addition to Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri, the government has held two other enemy combatants in the territorial United States. One, former US national Yassir Hamdi, was deported to Saudi Arabia after agreeing to relinquish his American citizenship.
And Jose Padilla, a US citizen, has been removed from the South Carolina brig and now faces an ordinary criminal trial in Florida. The Justice Department rescinded his enemy-combatant status just before the Department was due to respond to a challenge from Padilla before the Supreme Court..
In a brief filed last November in the South Carolina court, lawyers with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School noted that Al-Marri was deemed an enemy combatant far away from any actual combat zone and long after any alleged crime linked to him had actually taken place. In light of this, the brief said, Al-Marriâ€™s case â€œpresents the fundamental question of whether the government can sweep people off the streets of the United States and confine them without the benefit of a trial, and without affording them the familiar due process protections guaranteed by the Constitution.â€�