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Federal Court Overrules Bush on Detention of US Terror Suspect - 2003-12-18

A federal court of appeals in New York ruled Thursday that President Bush cannot detain a U.S. citizen seized on U.S. soil as an enemy combatant. The decision involves the case of terror suspect Jose Padilla, who was arrested for allegedly plotting with al-Qaida to detonate a so-called "dirty bomb."

In a setback for the Bush administration, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court said that President Bush required authorization from the U.S. Congress to hold terror suspect Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant.

The 2-1 ruling stated, "presidential authority does not exist in a vacuum."

President Bush now has 30 days to charge or release Mr. Padilla, held for over a year in a U.S. naval prison in the the southern state of South Carolina, without access to an attorney.

Mr. Padilla is a former Chicago gang member arrested in May 2002 for allegedly plotting with al-Qaida to set off a so-called "dirty bomb," which uses unconventional explosives to spread radioactive material. One month later, President Bush declared Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, an enemy combatant, which essentially means he can be held indefinitely without access to the courts.

A team of civil rights attorneys argued on behalf of Mr. Padilla. Donna Lieberman, director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed briefs in the case as a friend of the court. She calls the ruling historic and courageous.

"This is an important victory for civil liberties in the post-[September 11] era," she said. "It stands for the proposition that the president can not engage in an end run around the courts in the name of fighting terrorism. The government can and should protect us from terrorism but what it can not do is ignore the Constitution."

The ruling followed an earlier decision by a district court judge, who said that Mr. Padilla was entitled to a lawyer to challenge his designation an enemy combatant.

But the appeals court made it clear that its ruling refers only to U.S. citizens taken into custody on U.S. soil. The panel of the second highest court in the United States said its decision does not address the detention of U.S. citizens arrested in combat in Afghanistan.