A federal court judge in New York has ruled it has the power to decide whether a man accused of plotting to explode a radioactive bomb was properly detained as an enemy combatant. Until that decision is made, the judge says, the accused has the right to see his lawyers.

Jose Padilla was arrested as a material witness in Chicago in May after a flight from Pakistan. He has been detained in Defense Department custody ever since, accused of being an "enemy combatant," who conspired with terrorists to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb."

The federal government says Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, met with senior al-Qaida operatives twice in March. The government argues it can restrict the rights of accused "enemy combatants". As a result, Mr. Padilla has not been allowed to meet with his lawyers. But now Federal Court Judge Michael Mukasey has ruled that Mr. Padilla's lawyer can challenge the government and try to win his release. Lawyers seeking Mr. Padilla's release say his detention violates his constitutional rights because he has never been formally charged with an offense.

The decision is a setback for the federal government's argument that enemy combatants have no right to challenge government actions in court.

But in his 102-page ruling, Judge Mukasey was also supportive of the government's position, writing that the U.S. president has "both the constitutional and statutory authority to exercise the powers of commander-in-chief, including the power to detain unlawful combatants."

The judge still has to rule on whether Mr. Padilla was legally detained and whether the government has sufficient evidence to find that Mr. Padilla was an enemy combatant.