Supreme Court dismisses petition of Ali al-Marri

Andy Kravetz

A move by the nation’s highest court not to hear Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri’s challenge to his five-plus years in military custody could mean he could return to Peoria by next week.

The dismissal of al-Marri’s petition before the U.S. Supreme Court could mean the former West Peorian and Qatari national might be transferred from the U.S. Naval brig in Charleston, S.C., relatively soon. An memo from President Barack Obama last week OK’d the transfer to civilian custody as soon as the Justice Department saw fit.

Officials wouldn’t give specifics but sources say al-Marri’s court appearance could come next week. The exact date and if it would be in South Carolina or Peoria was not known.

The speculation comes after the justices, during their weekly conference Friday, decided to dismiss al-Marri’s petition. By doing so, they sidestepped the issue of whether the government can legally detain people without charges for an indefinite length of time.

The Obama administration sought the dismissal, saying there was no need for the high court to weigh in, as al-Marri was charged last week in Peoria’s federal court with providing material support to a terrorist group, al-Qaida, and conspiring with others to do so. Al-Marri always has wanted a chance to challenge the accusations against him.

It was a tough spot for the Obama administration, which didn’t want to defend former President George W. Bush’s policies regarding “enemy combatants,” but also didn’t relish losing a rather powerful arrow in the presidential quiver.

Al-Marri’s attorneys, however, can claim a partial victory. The justices also threw out a splintered 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from last summer which held such detentions were legal. Many legal scholars believed the 5-4 ruling by the 4th Circuit left many legal questions unanswered.

Both sides claimed some measure of success, but Jonathan Hafetz, one of al-Marri’s lead attorneys, said he would have preferred an up or down vote by the high court.

“The Supreme Court nonetheless took an important step today by vacating a lower court decision that had upheld the Bush administration’s authority to designate al-Marri as an ‘enemy combatant.’ Congress never granted the president that authority and the Constitution does not permit it,” he said.

“We trust that the Obama administration will not repeat the abuses of the Bush administration having now chosen to prosecute Mr. al-Marri in federal court rather than defend the Bush administration’s actions in this case.”

The Supreme Court’s decision is the second time in the past five years the court has deferred a decision on those who are deemed “enemy combatants.” The other case involved Jose Padilla, a former Chicago street gang member who was initially held in the same naval brig in South Carolina as the 43-year-old al-Marri.

Just as his case was to be heard by the Supreme Court, the Bush administration dropped Padilla’s enemy combatant designation and charged him in federal court in Florida, where he was later convicted on related terrorism charges.

Al-Marri, a former Bradley University graduate student, was arrested at his West Peoria apartment three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. For nearly two years, he was charged in Manhattan’s and in Peoria’s federal courts with credit card fraud and lying to the FBI. Found on his laptop were several files relating to the use of poisons and chemical weapons, as well as videos and photos regarding Osama bin Laden and jihad.

Authorities claim he trained at an Afghani terrorist camp.

Just as a federal judge here was to hold a critical hearing, the government dropped all charges, declared him an “enemy combatant” and whisked him away to the brig in South Carolina, where he has been held since July 2003.

Authorities allege al-Marri was an al-Qaida sleeper agent, sent here to disrupt the nation’s banking system. He repeatedly has denied that. Al-Marri was the only named enemy combatant held in the United States.

Andy Kravetz can be reached at (309) 686-3283 orakravetz@pjstar.com.