A U.S. federal court has handed the government a stinging defeat in the terrorism case against Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held for more than three years in military detention as an enemy combatant.

A Federal Appeals Court has denied a Justice Department request to transfer Jose Padilla from military detention to civilian custody to stand trial on criminal charges in Miami.

Mr. Padilla, an American citizen, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002 as he returned from a trip to Afghanistan.  The Justice Department alleged he planned to set off "dirty bombs" in the United States that could spread radioactive material.  The department won an initial ruling from Judge J. Michael Luttig to detain Mr. Padilla as an enemy combatant.

Last month a grand jury in Miami charged Mr. Padilla with belonging to a North American terrorist cell that helped finance and recruit fighters for attacks outside the United States, making no mention of the dirty bomb allegations or attacks in the U.S.  The Justice Department subsequently asked the Appeals Court to allow Mr. Padilla's transfer to Miami to stand trial.
In writing Wednesday's court's decision, Judge Luttig, noted that the government left the "impression" that Jose Padilla may have been mistakenly detained these past three-and-a-half years and was now changing tactics to avoid further judicial review of the case, possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Remes is a Washington lawyer, specializing in constitutional law.  He told VOA the court's decision is a sharp rebuke of the government's handling of the case. 

"The court clearly felt that the government was playing games," he said.  "The government had made a very strong argument that Padilla was very dangerous, had to be treated like an enemy combatant and that the government needed very wide latitude in dealing with him.  And, then the government says, well, never mind."

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the department is disappointed by the court's decision and is leaving its options open on how to proceed.

Judge Luttig also wrote that the Padilla case should be brought before the Supreme Court. 

David Remes says that is now very likely.  He says the case goes far beyond the specific charges brought against Mr. Padilla and is less about terrorism than about a struggle between two branches of the federal government, the executive and the judiciary.  

"These are major, major issues of constitutional law," he added.  "They go to the heart of the separation of powers.  They go to the heart of the system of checks and balances.  They go to the heart of the right of Americans."

Mr. Padilla's lawyers welcomed the Appeals Court decision. They have questioned the administration's authority to detain him under such conditions.  Human rights groups and critics of the Bush administration have also denounced the practice of detaining terrorism suspects, indefinitely and without the promise of a trial.