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Terror suspect Padilla charged

Jose Padilla has been held since May 2002 when he returned to the United States from Pakistan.




Jose Padilla
Justice Department
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After being held for more than three years in U.S. military custody, Jose Padilla has been charged with membership in a North American terrorist support cell and with conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim.

Padilla was charged with three counts -- conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and providing material support to terrorists.

The charges are part of an 11-count indictment unsealed Tuesday, which stems from an existing case in Florida, where Padilla once lived.

Padilla and four others were charged with "conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country ... for the purpose of opposing existing governments and civilian factions and establishing Islamic states under Sharia (Islamic law), and material support for terrorism," according to the indictment. (Watch as the charges are announced -- 4:10)

Announcing the charges at a news conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Padilla, 34, will be transferred from military custody to the Justice Department.

"Mr. Padilla is now a new co-defendant -- along with Canadian national Kassem Daher -- in a criminal prosecution that previously charged defendants Adham Hassoun, Mohomed Youssef and Kifah Jayyousi with terrorism-related crimes," Gonzales said.

"All of these defendants are alleged members of a violent terrorist support cell that operated in the United States and Canada," he said.

A federal grand jury in Miami, Florida, handed up the indictment Thursday, and a trial is scheduled for September, Gonzales said. If convicted, Padilla could face life in prison.

Labeled an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration, Padilla previously was accused of -- but has not been charged with -- plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States and to blow up apartment buildings using natural gas lines.

The charges announced Tuesday do not include conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in the United States. (Watch if prosecutors are backing away from original accusations -- 2:01)

After Gonzales' announcement, Padilla's lead attorney, Donna Newman, said she welcomed the indictment.

"Now we can go to court and challenge the government's assertion," Newman said.

She said Padilla is aware of the charges and "looks forward to being vindicated when we go to trial."

Newman expressed concerns that the government's previous accusations about her client's alleged involvement in domestic bombing plots would "taint" him in the public eye. She said the charges did not involve the alleged plots because the government "could not support those allegations."

Another Padilla attorney, Andy Patel, said he was not surprised at the indictment or the timing, with a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the way "enemy combatants" have been handled by the Bush administration.

"The issue before the Supreme Court is still alive and active -- that the president signed an order to hold an American citizen for three years without criminal charges," Patel said. "The fact that they now decided to charge Mr. Padilla with a criminal offense doesn't mean they couldn't do this again to another person in the future.

"The Supreme Court will make the decision about whether or not they want to take this case."

In July, Patel argued before a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, that the government ought to charge Padilla or release him.

"The fact that the government filed criminal charges is a vindication not just for Mr. Padilla but for the whole constitutional process," he said.

Padilla's attorneys filed their latest appeal to the high court on October 25, and the government had until next Monday to respond. This indictment likely will make that pending Supreme Court appeal moot.

Padilla arrested at Chicago airport

The Brooklyn-born Padilla, a former gang member twice imprisoned in the United States, was arrested in May 2002 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois.

A convert to Islam, he took the name Abdullah al-Muhajir when he moved to Egypt in 1998. He allegedly trained at al Qaeda's military camps in Afghanistan in 2000 after being recruited by a Yemeni man he met on a pilgrimage to Mecca, according to the government.

The Justice Department said last year that Padilla has told interrogators that before the September 11 terror attacks he met with al Qaeda's late military chief, Mohamed Atef, about the apartment bombing plot, and Abu Zubaydah, the terror group's accused operations chief who is now in custody, about stealing radioactive material to be used in a crude explosive device.

FBI agents followed Padilla from Pakistan to O'Hare, arrested him on a material witness warrant and transferred him to New York.

On the eve of a court proceeding to challenge the warrant, President Bush designated him such a "grave threat" to national security that he was labeled an "enemy combatant" and handed over to the military.

CNN's Kelli Arena, Terry Frieden and Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.

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