The Justice Department is preparing to bring criminal charges against the only person detained in this country by the military as an enemy combatant, possibly defusing a Supreme Court dispute over whether the president has the right to hold civilians in the U.S. without charges.
As early as Friday, prosecutors are expected to announce charges against Ali al-Marri for allegedly supporting al-Qaida's terrorist network, according to government sources familiar with the case. His lawyer said he had unofficial confirmation that Marri already has been indicted on charges of material support for terrorism.The charges against Marri by a federal grand jury in Springfield, Ill., come at the request of federal prosecutors there and in consultation with officials in Washington, a source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the case remains under seal.
Obama administration will reverse course on the Bush administration's claims that the president has the power to declare someone -- including a civilian such as Marri -- as an enemy combatant and hold them indefinitely without charge or trial.
Marri was arrested in December 2001 at his home in Peoria by federal agents who believed he was an operative for al-Qaida sent to the U.S. to help launch follow-up attacks after the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.
A native of Qatar, Marri was living in Illinois as a legal U.S. resident when he was arrested.
A Bradley University graduate, he lived in Peoria from 1983 to 1991 and, briefly, in Downstate Macomb in 2000. He was back in Peoria in late 2001 to pursue a master's degree at Bradley.
He is now challenging as illegal his designation as an enemy combatant in a case scheduled to be heard in April by the Supreme Court.
A criminal indictment would not automatically resolve those legal issues, one of his lawyers said Thursday, and the Obama administration has not said whether it intends to proceed with that case or reverse course and not defend the Bush administration's designation of Marri.
"If true, it's certainly a step in the right direction in restoring the rule of law in this country, and it is something that should have happened when he was first arrested seven years ago," Jonathan Hafetz, lead counsel in Marri's case before the Supreme Court, said of criminal charges.
"But the Supreme Court also needs to hear the case, to make it clear once and for all that the president does not have the power to lock up American citizens or legal residents and hold them indefinitely without charge or trial," Hafetz, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in an interview.
The Justice Department and White House had no comment on the Marri case and whether he will be moved from a military brig in Charleston, S.C., to face terrorism-related charges in Illinois.
But one source familiar with the case said the charges are not surprising, given that one of Obama's first steps after taking office was to order an immediate review of all detainee cases, and Marri's in particular.
Marri was scheduled to go to trial on fraud and other relatively minor non-terrorism related charges in 2003, but the case was halted at the last minute when President George W. Bush designated him as an "enemy combatant."
In December 2007, over the objections of the Bush administration, the Supreme Court voted to hear Marri's appeal. Legal experts say the government was expected to lose, given that a five-justice majority last year rejected the government's policy at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said these prisoners, though captured abroad, are entitled to hearings before a federal judge.