Editorial: America on trial, just as al-Marri is

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Little guy. Toothy, disarming grin. Long black beard, white kufi cap, polo shirt and slacks. Seemed tired, perhaps overwhelmed by his circumstances. Unsure of his age - 43 - when asked. Requested eyeglasses to provide some clarity on the situation.

So this is Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri - alleged terrorist, accused al-Qaida "sleeper agent," designated "enemy combatant," the last of his kind, the man the federal government says should strike fear in the hearts of Americans from coast to coast? You could say there was a very visible security presence in and around Peoria's federal courthouse on Monday.

Looks can be deceiving, of course. For all we know al-Marri is every bit the danger that Uncle Sam claims he is, and now federal prosecutors get their chance to prove it.

Criminal case 09-10030 is all we ever asked for.

It's what al-Marri and his attorneys have been requesting for almost six years, most of which he spent in solitary confinement in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., deprived of basic human comforts, denied visits from family and, for a time, even from his attorneys. He was locked up on the orders of one man - the president of the United States - without charge or due process.

Now al-Marri - a native of Qatar who was in this country with his family legally at the time of his  arrest in Peoria - will get his day in court, at long last.

For the record, the al-Marri defense team pleaded "not guilty" on Monday to charges that he knowingly conspired to provide material support to al-Qaida in its war against the United States. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison. The defendant's lawyers asked for, and got, an assurance from the government that their conversations with their client would not be taped between now and any trial.

There will be an April 14 hearing so both sides can come to terms over the evidence. Some of it is sensitive and may be classified. Judge Michael Mihm set a trial date of May 26, which is relatively meaningless, used to technically satisfy the constitutional guarantee to a speedy trial.

We'd suggest that horse escaped the barn long ago.

Seeming to recognize that, Judge Mihm indicated that while he will not be pushing this case to trial before it's ready, "I want every effort made to try this case before the end of the year," by November or December.

If Mihm's schedule materializes, it will have been eight years that al-Marri has been behind bars without being allowed to defend himself. If justice delayed is justice denied, we'd suggest this case has been the epitome of the latter, and not to this nation's credit.

Yet we're still not convinced most locals or Americans in general are plugged in to the importance of this case -- it's the highest profile trial in Peoria in four decades -- or the principles at stake. Certainly the press is - Monday's hearing was attended by representatives of The New York Times, Bloomberg News, Reuters and at least one of the national TV networks. Certainly lead defense attorney Andrew Savage is, as he's taken on this challenge pro bono "because of the principles involved."

Unfortunately, this trial, should it get that far, is unlikely to answer the most important question of all: Is America still a nation of laws, or of men? The U.S. Supreme Court saw to that, taking a very disappointing pass on determining the constitutionality of these so-called "enemy combatants." At least the high court vacated an appellate court decision establishing precedent in favor of an all-powerful executive branch; still, what's to stop any president from locking up a new batch of enemy combatants and losing the key?

We have a sense of what the Founders intended. Arguably America and its professed values have been on trial here, every bit as much as al-Marri is now.

Peoria Journal Star