Subjected to torture in U.S. custody

Nicole Colson reports that the sentencing of Jose Padilla marks another defeat for the Bush administration.

IN ANOTHER setback for the Bush administration, federal prosecutors failed to win a life sentence for Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen convicted last August for his supposed role as part of an alleged North American al-Qaeda terrorist cell.

Padilla's case made headlines when he was arrested in 2002 for allegedly being part of a plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S. He was convicted last year on charges of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people in a foreign country, as well as lesser charges of materially supporting terrorism, and prosecutors asked Judge Marcia Cooke to impose several life sentences.

But Cooke ordered a sentence of 17 years, explaining that there was no evidence to link Padilla or his codefendants to any actual acts of terrorism.

Perhaps more galling to prosecutors, Cooke took into account the three-and-a-half years Padilla spent in a Navy brig in South Carolina after he was arrested in 2002. While the government refused to charge him with any crime during that time, Padilla was held in solitary confinement as an "enemy combatant" and, his lawyers say, routinely subjected to psychological and physical torture.

Padilla was housed in a 9-by-7-foot cell, with no natural light and no mattress, pillow, clock or calendar. For months, he was denied all reading material, including a copy of the Koran. For nearly two years, he was denied all outside contact, including any letters, meetings or phone calls with lawyers or family members.

Padilla appears to have been given forced injections during this time, and his lawyers speculate that the government may have used hallucinogenic drugs to make him more susceptible to interrogations. The lawyers also believe he was subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation and extreme sensory deprivation and overload--including the use of loud music and sounds, as well as bright lights.

According to the lawyers, Padilla's treatment at the hands of his government interrogators left him so mentally and physically shattered that he was unable to assist in his own defense.

According to one expert, Padilla shows a 98 percent probability of a brain injury from his time in government custody. Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who also examined Padilla, said he now lives in an "absolute state of terror--terror alternating with numbness, largely. It was as though the interrogators were in the room with us" when Hegarty carried out her examination.

The government dropped its most serious accusation against Padilla--that he was plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb inside the U.S.--because Padilla's alleged "confession" came only after he had been subjected to questioning at the hands of military interrogators, without being read his rights or given access to a lawyer.

In addition to the sentence for Padilla, Cooke also handed down sentences for two codefendants. Padilla's alleged recruiter, Adham Amin Hassoun, was given 15 years and eight months, and a third defendant, Kifah Wael Jayyousi, received 12 years and eight months. Jayyousi was accused of financing the alleged North American terrorist cell that assisted Islamic extremists in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Both also faced life in prison.

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THE FACT that all three defendants received sentences that were significantly lighter than the government was seeking marks yet another setback for the Justice Department's prosecution of alleged terrorism suspects. "It is definitely a defeat for the government," Hassoun's lawyer Jeanne Baker told reporters.

The Padilla case may not end here. While Justice Department lawyers consider whether to appeal the sentence, earlier this month, Padilla's lawyers filed a suit on his behalf that, if heard, could challenge the government's policies on the treatment of detainees.

The lawsuit against John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped draft the legal reasoning behind the Bush administration's policies of indefinite detention, seeks damages for Padilla's unconstitutional confinement and "gross physical and psychological abuse."

Eric George, a lawyer for Yoo, dismissed the suit as "a political diatribe" that "belongs, at best, in a journal, not before a federal court."

But according to Jonathan Freiman, one of Padilla's lawyers, the new lawsuit is based on the premise that "a lawyer who gives the green light to clearly illegal conduct is an accomplice to that conduct." In part, the suit claims that the tactics used against Padilla during his detention and interrogation removed his ability to effectively participate in his own defense--a violation of his constitutional rights.

At Padilla's request, the lawsuit seeks just one dollar in damages. As Freiman explained, "At bottom, this isn't about money. It's about right and wrong."