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Homeland Security

Testimony Begins in US Terrorism Trial

15 May 2007

A U.S. court has begun hearing testimony from witnesses in the terrorism trial of Jose Padilla, an American convert to Islam. From Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the alleged al-Qaida recruit is accused of planning to help commit terrorist attacks around the world.

Prosecutors opened their case against Jose Padilla in a federal court house in Miami this week, five years after the alleged al-Qaida recruit was first detained by U.S. authorities.

They say one key piece of evidence is a form signed by Padilla to join a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. They called their first witnesses early Tuesday, an FBI agent and a CIA official who helped obtain the document from a source in Afghanistan.

Padilla is standing trial with two other men who are accused of operating a terrorist cell in south Florida which recruited people to fight alongside Islamic extremists in other countries. Defense attorneys say the men had no link to al-Qaida and only sought to aid Muslims who were being attacked in places like Chechnya and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Wake Forest University law professor Bobby Chesney says the jury trial, which is expected to last more than three months, may be a key test of recent efforts to strengthen U.S. anti-terrorism legislation. "It's an important case both as a question of the scope of criminal law in the terrorism context, and of course given the great amount of attention drawn by Jose Padilla. It's important politically as well," he said.

The Bush administration has faced repeated criticism over its treatment of Padilla since his arrest at Chicago's International Airport in 2002 as he arrived on a flight from Pakistan. Officials initially said he planned to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb." He was classified as an enemy combatant and placed in military custody.

More than three years later, he was transferred to civilian custody to face charges of providing material support for terrorism and conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim people outside the country.

Defense lawyers for Padilla have said he was tortured while in military custody and suffered mental damage as a result. They filed a motion to declare Padilla mentally unfit for trial, but the presiding judge in Miami rejected it.

Professor Chesney of Wake Forest University says the courts have resolved many of the legal issues surrounding Padilla's time in military custody. "The net result of it all is to suggest that unless something changes, issues about what he experienced as a military detainee are not going to play a role in this trial. Then again, you never know what might happen in trial," he said.

Padilla's co-defendants are Jordanian-born Kifah Jayyousi and Lebanese-born Palestinian Adham Hassoun. They face life in prison, if convicted.

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