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Suspect may face fewer legal rights than in criminal court system

Jose Padilla
Jose Padilla  

(CNN) -- The arrest of "dirty bomb" suspect Abdullah Al Muhajir and his designation as an enemy combatant could place him in a legal process that carries fewer legal rights than defendants in the traditional U.S. criminal court system.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Monday that Al Muhajir was captured in May at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois. (Read the main story.)

Authorities have not decided whether a military tribunal should be used to try Al Muhajir, whom the U.S. alleges is an American member of al Qaeda. (A look at the U.S. military tribunal process.)

Ashcroft said that Al Muhajir was being turned over to the Defense Department with his classification as an enemy combatant.

As a U.S. citizen, Al Muhajir usually would be afforded traditional legal rights such as presumption of innocence until a conviction.

1942 U.S. Supreme Court case detailing the legal role of military tribunals 
Using military tribunals rather than criminal courts 
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The designation of enemy combatant, however, allows U.S. authorities to interrogate the suspect in a more aggressive fashion. It means that he has fewer legal rights than an ordinary civilian defendant in a criminal case. For example, he can be held indefinitely.

The U.S. Supreme Court defined an "enemy combatant" or "unlawful combatant" in a World War II case, Ex Parte Quirin. In this 1942 decision, the court confirmed the authority of Congress and the president to try Nazi terrorists operating in the United States by military commissions.

The case centered on eight Nazi saboteurs who had crossed the Atlantic in a German submarine: four Nazi operatives landed on Long Island, New York, and another four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The FBI arrested both groups and turned them over to the military, which promptly tried them.

In the case, the United States was able to execute the saboteurs because they were not deemed to be prisoners of war but unlawful combatants.

International debate has arisen about the U.S. classification of "enemy" or "unlawful combatants."

The United Nations, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross have disputed the U.S. definition of Afghan war detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as "unlawful combatants."

These groups say the detainees are prisoners of war and are entitled to rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a signatory.




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