US terror suspect charged after three years in detention

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The Independent US

The US government has announced formal terrorism charges against Jose Padilla - more than three years after arresting the US citizen as an alleged would-be "dirty bomber".

He has been held virtually incommunicado ever since in a military brig in South Carolina. The indictment, on counts of providing support for terrorists and conspiring to kidnap and murder individuals overseas, was announced by Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General, and it represents a major change of tactics by the authorities.

The charges were made yesterday, shortly before a deadline for the administration to file legal arguments, ahead of a Supreme Court appeal by Mr Padilla that challenges the government's right to designate a US citizen as an "enemy combatant", denying him due process of law.

Mr Padilla, a Brooklyn-born gang member and convert to Islam, was arrested on 8 May 2002 at Chicago airport as he was returning from Pakistan.

A month later, his detention was announced with a huge fanfare by John Ashcroft, Mr Gonzales' predecessor, live at a press conference in Moscow where Mr Ashcroft was on an official visit.

On that occasion Mr Ashcroft described him as "a known terrorist", claiming that the authorities had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot " to explode a radiological dispersion device, or "dirty bomb" , in the US. Later it was alleged that Mr Padilla was seeking to blow up apartment blocks in major cities.

Yesterday there was no mention of these allegations, scathingly described by Mr Padilla's lawyers as "double and triple hearsay from secret witnesses ". Instead Mr Gonzales claimed that Mr Padilla, and four co-defendants already facing trial, belonged to a "violent terrorist support cell" linked to overseas Jihadi activists. The charges do not relate to any activities against US citizens within the US. If convicted, Mr Padilla could face life imprisonment.

* An Arab-American college student was convicted yesterday of joining al-Qa'ida and plotting to assassinate President Bush. The federal jury rejected Ahmed Omar Abu Ali's claim that Saudi authorities tortured him to extract a false confession.