Prosecutors are preparing to charge and transfer to the US court system the last “enemy combatant” held in the country, media said on Thursday, in one of US President Barack Obama’s sharpest breaks with the Bush administration.
Federal prosecutors were preparing to charge Ali al-Marri with providing support to al-Qaeda, the Washington Post said citing sources familiar with the case.
The action would be a significant departure from the administration of former US president George W. Bush, which argued that Marri should be tried before a special military tribunal and not be allowed to use US courts to contest his legal status.
A citizen of Qatar, Marri and his family arrived legally in the US one day before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He was arrested three months later while attending a university in Peoria, Illinois, and has been held without charge for the past five and a half years as an “enemy combatant” in a military brig in South Carolina.
Bush’s administration had argued that unlawful enemy combatants captured in the “war on terror” did not have the same rights as US criminals or prisoners of war, arguing the detainees were not associated with conventional armies.
But Obama ordered a review of the Marri case shortly after taking office, at the same time that he ordered the closure within a year of the “war on terror” prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some 240 suspects, also labeled enemy combatants, are being held.
The Obama administration could announce the Marri charges in federal court by the end of the week, the Post reported.
The fundamental shift could signify that the government is inching towards processing some of the prisoners being held indefinitely at Guantanamo in the US court system.
“If true, the decision to charge Marri is an important step in restoring the rule of law and is what should have happened seven years ago when he was first arrested,” Jonathan Hafetz, one of Marri’s lawyers, said in a statement.
Hafetz nevertheless insisted that this potentially crucial legal step not block his client’s case coming up before the US Supreme Court in April, a case which would challenge Bush’s position that the president has authority to hold indefinitely and without charge a person declared an enemy combatant.
“It is vital that the Supreme Court case go forward because it must be made clear once and for all that indefinite military detention of persons arrested in the US is illegal and that this will never happen again,” the lawyer said.