Enemy combatant case moved into civilian courts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal authorities have unsealed an indictment against alleged al-Qaida sleeper agent Ali al-Marri, moving him into the civilian court system as the Obama administration considers a new strategy for handling terror suspects. Al-Marri has been held in a Navy brig outside Charleston, S.C. for more than five years since President George W. Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

He will now be transferred to Peoria, Ill., to face trial in a civilian court on a charge of providing material support to al-Qaida and a related conspiracy count. The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years each.

His lawyer Jonathan Hafetz called the indictment "an important step toward restoring the rule of law," and said he was glad his client's guilt or innocence will now be decided in a courtroom.

For a case that has taken years to develop, the indictment itself is stunningly brief: barely 2 pages, offering none of the specifics often contained in such papers to back up criminal charges.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said prosecutors "will introduce our evidence at trial and intend to prove our case there."

Al-Marri already has a case before the Supreme Court challenging the president's authority to arrest terror suspects in the United States and hold them indefinitely without charges.

Now that he has been indicted, Justice Department officials said they would ask to have the Supreme Court case dismissed.

Al-Marri's transfer is the first signal of how the Obama administration is likely to handle accused terrorists, a significant shift from the strategy of the Bush administration.

Since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, government lawyers argued that the president has the wartime authority to send the military into any U.S. neighborhood, capture a citizen - or legal resident like al-Marri - and hold him in prison without charge, indefinitely.

With al-Marri's indictment, President Barack Obama ordered the military to turn al-Marri over to the Justice Department, when requested by Attorney General Eric Holder. It was not immediately clear when that handover would take place, but officials said it would not happen until the Supreme Court rules on the government's motion to dismiss al-Marri's legal challenge.

Holder said in a statement the charges show the government's "resolve to protect the American people and prosecute alleged terrorists."

The attorney general said the Obama administration "will hold accountable anyone who attempts to do harm to Americans, and we will do so in a manner consistent with our values."

The government has said al-Marri is an al-Qaida sleeper agent who has met Osama bin Laden and spent time at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.

A legal U.S. resident when he was arrested, al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement at the brig since 2003.

Al-Marri was arrested in late 2001 as part of the FBI's investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors at first indicted him on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI, not terror charges.

In June 2003, Bush said al-Marri had vital information about terror plots, declared him an enemy combatant and ordered him transferred to military custody.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.