Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans

22.1.08

Jose PadillaThe news that US citizen Jose 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 US 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 US 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 disturbing because it sends a clear message to the President of the United States that he can, if he wishes (and as he did with Padilla), designate a US 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.”

Jose Padilla's visit to the dentist

The photo of Jose Padilla’s sensory-deprived trip to the dentist that caused a shock when it was published by the New York Times in December 2006.

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 Angela 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 US citizens at will. When it seemed that his case was within reach of the US Supreme Court, the government transferred him into the US 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.

17 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 half years of suppressed torture is raised, it’s difficult not to conclude that justice has just been horribly twisted, that the President and his advisors have just got 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 taken away from them, it could be any number of categories of “enemy combatants” who have not yet been identified.

For more on Jose Padilla and other US “enemy combatants,” see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on AlterNet, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and American Torture.

See the following for updates on Padilla: US Justice Department drops “dirty bomb plot” allegation against Binyam Mohamed (October 2008), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009).

Also see related articles on Ali al-Marri: The Ordeal of Ali al-Marri (June 2007), The torture of Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” on the US mainland (November 2007), Court Confirms President’s Dictatorial Powers in Case of US “Enemy Combatant” Ali al-Marri (July 2008), The Last US Enemy Combatant: The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri (December 2008), Ending The Cruel Isolation Of Ali al-Marri, The Last US “Enemy Combatant” and Why The US Under Obama Is Still A Dictatorship (both March 2009), Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty (May 2009).

14 Responses

  1. Fred Corron says...

    Only time will tell whether Padilla ends up serving this sentence. Perhaps the judge is trying to prevent Bush – in his desperation to have at least ONE “Islamic terrorist” to show for his “war on terror” – from re-declaring Padilla to be an “illegal enemy combatant” and feeding him back to the gang of psychologists and other psychopaths who mercilessly tormented him for years. In the next world, they’ll get to experience what they did to Padilla. Some people just have to learn the hard way.

    The most disgusting aspect of the Padilla case is that people still believe that there could be a good reason for what was done to him, and many of them, like Bush, probably call themselves Christians – one of the more popular veneers for rotting wood.

  2. True Blue Liberal » Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year Prison Sentence Should Shock And Disgust All Americans says...

    [...] Read more Shock and Disgust [...]

  3. Why Jose Padilla’s 17-year prison sentence should shock and disgust all Americans - Juxtaposeur says...

    [...] The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. SOURCE: Andy Worthington Published 30 January 2008 11:21 PM by smileycoyote Filed under: justice, big brother, liberty, [...]

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published, I received the following comment from Marsha Respess:

    “I am shocked and disgusted at this monstrous travesty of justice. I am just surprised that they didn’t give him a life sentence. In a horrible way I hope that he doesn’t fully realize what has been done to him. I could never figure out why the media didn’t see how the charges against Jose kept on wildly changing at least three different times and the public did not grasp and still does not grasp that if this was done to a U.S. citizen then they too could be subject to unlawful detention and imprisonment.”

    Thanks, Marsha.

  5. tim benton says...

    If he did conspire to commit terror, then we (US) are foolish not to execute him. Why take the chance that he’ll succeed next time?

  6. Zoe says...

    Will the Obama/Biden Administration have the will to let him go? They are faced with many decisions such as this. Such as holding the “law makers” of the last 8 years accountable. Do they have the salt? If not, what can we as a citizenry do about it?

  7. Julia says...

    It sickens me to my core to think about what this man went through. Guilty or “Not Guilty” no human deserves to go through this. And, let us NOT forget that this treatment CONTINUES to happen to others NOW.

    As Zoe comments above..

    What are We, as a Collective, going to do about it??

  8. The Last US Enemy Combatant - The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] support for terrorism, which, nonetheless, led to a conviction in August 2007, and a 17-year sentence in January [...]

  9. freedetainees.org » The Shocking Story of Ali al-Marri says...

    [...] support for terrorism, which, nonetheless, led to a conviction in August 2007, and a 17-year sentence in January [...]

  10. Chris Halkides says...

    Tim,
    What you do not seem to realize is that Padilla is dead already. What was done to him is called menticide. Even if he were not, to execute someone who has not harmed anyone is monstrous and is evidence that our nation has lost its moral compass.

  11. Dictatorial Powers Unchallenged As US “Enemy Combatant” Pleads Guilty by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] out of the brig and put into the federal court system (where he was later tried, convicted and sentenced) before the Supreme Court could challenge the [...]

  12. Is Bradley Manning Being Held as Some Sort of “Enemy Combatant”? « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] federal custody on January 3, 2006 (and subsequently tried and convicted in August 2007, and given a sentence of 17 years and four months in January 2008 for conspiring to kill people in an overseas jihad and to fund and support overseas [...]

  13. It Could Be You: The Sad Story of Jose Padilla, Tortured and Denied Justice | Visions Before Midnight says...

    [...] August 16, 2007, the jury found him guilty, and on January 22, 2008, he received a sentence of 17 years and 4 months. This sentence was in spite of the fact that the conspiracy in which he was reportedly involved had [...]

  14. Lies, Damned Lies and Politics: Part One | Traces of Reality says...

    [...] by which the most notable foiled terrorist plots of recent memory have played out. In the case of “Dirty Bomber” and “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla, the proceedings themselves should have been enough to result in a mistrial. Despite [...]

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