A federal judge's order stripping one terrorist conspiracy charge against accused al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla could spare him a life sentence.
The decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke has little practical effect on the pending criminal case against the one-time "enemy combatant," because the facts the government has set out to prove remain the same. But if prosecutors obtain a conviction against Padilla on the two remaining counts, his maximum sentence would be 30 years.
The trial, originally scheduled for next month, was recently delayed by Cooke until Jan. 22, 2007.
Padilla is just one of five defendants named in an 11-count indictment filed last November, three days before the Bush administration transferred him from military custody to Justice Department custody in Miami, after three-and-half years in the Charleston naval brig. Only two co-defendants are in custody or in the United States, and one is free on bail.
Padilla was indicted in a pre-existing South Florida terrorism case with conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country, conspiracy to provide material support for terrorists, and providing material support for terrorists. The first conspiracy charge carried a potential life sentence. The other two charges carry a maximum of 15 years, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Lead defendant Adam Amin Hassoun is charged in eight other counts, one for gun possession and seven for perjury or making false statements.
In her order, Judge Cooke said the two conspiracy charges against Padilla were "multiplicitous," or "charging the same offense multiple times, in separate counts." There is "one and only one" alleged conspiracy – to advance violent jihad, Cooke said.
Despite Cook's dismissal of a conspiracy charge, the overt acts alleged by the government remain in tact. However, they do not include al Qaeda plots once described by U.S. officials to justify Padilla's enemy combatant treatment – to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" or blow up apartment buildings with their own natural gas lines in the United States.
The worst allegation against Padilla in the Miami case is that after he moved to Egypt in 1998, he allegedly attended terror training camps in Afghanistan in 1999-2000. The government has offered what it calls his "mujahideen identification form" as evidence. The indictment also alleges Padilla received money and camping gear from Hassoun.
Government officials have previously alleged that Padilla has confessed to undergoing weapons training at al Qaeda's infamous al Farooq camp in 2000 under the jihad name "Abdullah al-Hispani" and received $20,000 from al Qaeda leaders to further terrorist plots. But nothing Padilla might have told his military captors would be admissible in court.
The indictment makes only a passing mention of al Qaeda, listing it as one of several groups pursuing "jihad" as part of a global "radical fundamentalist movement." There is only one reference to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a wiretapped phone conversation between two alleged conspirators saying in 2000 that Padilla had "entered the area of Osama."
Padilla, 35, was detained in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport upon returning from Pakistan. He was held as a material witness in the grand jury investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for a month in New York, before his open-ended transfer to military custody.