The news that U.S. citizen José Padilla has received a prison sentence of 17 years and four months should provoke outrage in the United States, although it is unlikely that there will be much more than a whimper of dissent.
The former gang member and convert to Islam whose arrest in May 2002 was trumpeted by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as that of a "known terrorist " who was "exploring a plan" to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city was once regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists ever apprehended on American soil. Almost six years later, as he received his sentence, he was not actually accused of lifting a finger to harm even a single U.S. citizen.
While this is shocking enough in and of itself, Padilla’s sentence in what at least one perceptive commentator called "the most important case of our lifetimes" is particularly shocking because it sends a clear message to the president of the United States that he can, if he wishes, designate a U.S. citizen as an "enemy combatant," hold him without charge or trial in a naval brig for 43 months, and torture him through the use of prolonged sensory deprivation and solitary confinement to such an extent that, as the psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty explained after spending 22 hours with Padilla, "What happened at the brig was essentially the destruction of a human being’s mind."
Padilla’s warders had another take on his condition, describing him as "so docile and inactive that he could be mistaken for ‘a piece of furniture,’" but the most detailed analysis of the effects of his torture was, again, provided by Hegarty in an interview last August with Democracy Now!
Juan Gonzalez: "And have you dealt with someone who had been in isolation for such a long period of time before?"
Dr. Angela Hegarty: "No. This was the first time I ever met anybody who had been isolated for such an extraordinarily long period of time. I mean, the sensory deprivation studies, for example, tell us that without sleep, especially, people will develop psychotic symptoms, hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, suicidality within days. And here we had a man who had been in this situation, utterly dependent on his interrogators, who didn’t treat him all that nicely, for years. And apart from the only people I ever met who had such a protracted experience were people who were in detention camps overseas, that would come close, but even then they weren’t subjected to the sensory deprivation. So, yes, he was somewhat of a unique case in that regard."
As if this were not worrying enough, it was what happened after Padilla’s 43-month ordeal that sealed the president’s impunity to torture U.S. citizens at will. When it seemed that his case was within reach of the U.S. Supreme Court, the government transferred him into the U.S. legal system, deposited him in a normal prison environment, dropped all mention of the "dirty bomb" plot, and charged him, based on his association with two alleged terrorist facilitators, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, with participating in a Florida-based plot to aid Islamic extremists in holy wars abroad. When the case came to court last summer, the judge, Marcia Cooke, airbrushed Padilla’s torture from history, insisting that it could not be discussed at all, and, after a trial regarded as farcical by many observers, Padilla and his co-defendants were duly found guilty.
Today’s sentencing, after an unusually protracted two-week debate, has apparently brought the whole sordid saga to an end, with Padilla’s torture only mentioned briefly in passing by Judge Cooke, who noted, "I do find that the conditions [for Padilla as an enemy combatant] were so harsh that they warrant consideration." Nevertheless, he received a longer sentence than either of his co-defendants (who were sentenced to 15 years and eight months, and 12 years and eight months, respectively), even though two jurors admitted to the Miami Herald that the jury as a whole "struggled to convict Padilla because the panel initially viewed him as a bit player in the scheme to aid Islamic extremists, unlike his co-defendants"
They certainly had a point. While the conviction of Hassoun and Jayyousi was based on coded conversations in 126 phone calls intercepted by the FBI over a number of years, Padilla was included in only seven of those phone calls. Groomed by his mentor, Hassoun, he had traveled to the Middle East and, in 2000, had applied to attend a military training camp in Afghanistan, using the name Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir. His application form, which, according to a government expert, bore his fingerprints, was apparently discovered during a CIA raid on an alleged al-Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan, but although the prosecution presented an alleged al-Qaeda graduation list with his Muslim name on it during the sentencing, they had been unable to provide any evidence during the trial that he had actually attended the training camp in Afghanistan.
In the end, Padilla’s conviction hinged on the jury’s determination that he had "joined the terrorism conspiracy in the United States before leaving the country." This was based on a single recorded conversation, in July 1997, in which he stated that he was ready to join a jihad overseas.
Seventeen years and four months seems to me to be an extraordinarily long sentence for little more than a thought crime, but when the issue of Padilla’s three and a half years of suppressed torture is raised, it’s difficult not to conclude that justice has been horribly twisted, that the president and his advisers have just gotten away with torturing an American citizen with impunity, and that no American citizen can be sure that what happened to Padilla will not happen to him or her. Today, it was a Muslim; tomorrow, unless the government’s powers are restricted, it could be any number of categories of "enemy combatants" who have not yet been identified.
For more on José Padilla and other U.S. "enemy combatants," see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.