4th Circuit rules for “enemy combatant”

In what is being hailed as a landmark decision, a 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 that the federal Military Commissions Act doesn’t strip Ali al-Marri, a legal US resident, of his constitutional right to challenge his accusers in court, and that the government must allow him to be released from military detention.

“To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President calls them ‘enemy combatants,’ would have disastrous consequences for the constitution—and the country,” the panel said.

The government intends to ask the full 4th Circuit to hear the case, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said. “The President has made clear that he intends to use all available tools at his disposal to protect Americans from further al-Qaeda attack, including the capture and detention of al-Qaida agents who enter our borders,” Boyd said in a statement.

Al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement in a Navy brig at Charleston, SC, since June 2003. The Qatar native was detained in December 2001 at his home in Peoria, IL, where he moved with his wife and five children a day before the 9-11 attacks to study for a master’s degree at Bradley University.

“This is a landmark victory for the rule of law and a defeat for unchecked executive power,” al-Marri’s lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz, said in a statement. “It affirms the basic constitutional rights of all individuals—citizens and immigrants—in the United States.”

The ruling doesn’t mean al-Marri will be set free. Instead, he can be turned over to the civilian court system and tried on criminal charges. “But the government cannot subject al-Marri to indefinite military detention,” the opinion stated. “For in the United States, the military cannot seize and imprison civilians—let alone imprison them indefinitely.”

Al-Marri is currently the only US resident held as an enemy combatant within the US. Jose Padilla, who is a US citizen, was held as an enemy combatant in a Navy brig for three and a half years before he was added to an existing criminal case in Miami in November 2005—a few days before a Supreme Court deadline for administration briefs on the question of presidential powers to continue holding him without charge in military prison.

Federal investigators initially charged al-Marri with credit card fraud. Later, authorities shifted al-Marri’s case from the criminal system and moved him to military detention as an “enemy combatant.” (AP, June 11)

See our last post on the detainment scandal.