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After 22 months, 'dirty bomb' suspect sees lawyers

From Phil Hirschkorn

Jose Padilla
Jose Padilla

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(CNN) -- Attorneys for suspected enemy combatant Jose Padilla visited him for the first time in almost two years Wednesday at the U.S. Navy brig at Charleston, South Carolina, where the Brooklyn-born 33 year old has been held incommunicado since June 2002.

"It did not appear that he had any idea of what has been happening in his absence," said defense attorney Donna Newman. "He certainly had an interest in not only the issues but what's next."

During his incarceration, Padillla's case has gained international attention that has challenged the Bush administration's legal foundation for prosecuting and detaining alleged terrorists in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case in April. (Full story)

The Pentagon permitted Newman and co-counsel Andrew Patel, New Jersey and New York-based defense attorneys, to visit Padilla only after deciding last month that its interrogation of the alleged al Qaeda operative had ended.

The meeting lasted four hours, as planned.

"Most of the talking was done by me," Newman said. "My aim was simply to educate him."

The meeting was videotaped with sound by the government. A member of the military was present at all times. And all of the attorneys' notes were photocopied by the military.

Newman said the visit fell short of a standard attorney-client meeting, which is confidential, so the attorneys discussed only the legal issues of the case, not facts or allegations.

"It certainly did not comport with due process. What it comported with is simply a show-up in which I got to see my client, and I was happy about that," Newman said.

The attorneys had hoped to meet with Padilla privately over five days, for up to five hours a day, but the Pentagon limited the visit to the same strict conditions granted last month to the attorney for Yaser Hamdi, another "enemy combatant" held in Charleston.

Hamdi was born in Louisiana but grew up in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested on the battlefield in Afghanistan in November 2001 and has been in military custody since then.

Prior to their Wednesday visit, Newman and Patel had expressed concerns about Padilla's health.

"He seemed fine," Newman said afterward. "However, I am not a psychiatrist; I am not a medical doctor. People that are held incommunicado -- it does affect them psychologically. And while on the surface, [in] initial conversations they may appear fine, further testing will reveal problems. I am not saying there are or there aren't, I don't know."

Newman said Padilla looked about the same as he does in old snapshots broadcast the past two years.

"He actually did have a little beard," she said. "He looked essentially the same."

Padilla, accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2002 on a flight from Pakistan.

He was initially held as a material witness in the investigation of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

No charges have been filed against him, but Attorney General John Ashcroft has accused Padilla of meeting with al Qaeda's former operations chief, Abu Zubaydah, and discussing stealing radioactive material to set off a crude explosive device.

On June 9, 2002, President Bush declared Padilla a "grave threat" to national security, designated him an "enemy combatant," and transferred him to military custody, where his access to counsel and family members has been denied for 22 months.

In December 2002, U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey ruled that Padilla's detention was constitutional but that defense attorneys should be granted access to him so he might contest the government's evidence.

Last December, the 2nd Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the president, even as commander-in-chief, has no legal authority to indefinitely detain an American citizen without charges, if that prisoner was not captured on a battlefield.

The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the government's appeal on April 28.

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