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Video Is a Window Into a Terror Suspect's Isolation

NY Times | December 4, 2006
DEBORAH SONTAG

One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.

“Today is May 21,” a naval official declared to a camera videotaping the event. “Right now we're ready to do a root canal treatment on Jose Padilla, our enemy combatant.”

Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.

The videotape of that trip to the dentist, which was recently released to Mr. Padilla's lawyers and viewed by The New York Times, offers the first concrete glimpse inside the secretive military incarceration of an American citizen whose detention without charges became a test case of President Bush's powers in the fight against terror. Still frames from the videotape were posted in Mr. Padilla's electronic court file late Friday.

To Mr. Padilla's lawyers, the pictures capture the dehumanization of their client during his military detention from mid-2002 until earlier this year, when the government changed his status from enemy combatant to criminal defendant and transferred him to the federal detention center in Miami. He now awaits trial scheduled for late January.

Together with other documents filed late Friday, the images represent the latest and most aggressive sally by defense lawyers who declared this fall that charges against Mr. Padilla should be dismissed for “outrageous government conduct,” saying that he was mistreated and tortured during his years as an enemy combatant.

Now lawyers for Mr. Padilla, 36, suggest that he is unfit to stand trial. They argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of “truth serums.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Todd Vician, said Sunday that the military disputes Mr. Padilla's accusations of mistreatment. And, in court papers, prosecutors deny “in the strongest terms” the accusations of torture and say that “Padilla's conditions of confinement were humane and designed to ensure his safety and security.”

“His basic needs were met in a conscientious manner, including Halal (Muslim acceptable) food, clothing, sleep and daily medical assessment and treatment when necessary,” the government stated. “While in the brig, Padilla never reported any abusive treatment to the staff or medical personnel.”

In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, “as part of an interrogation plan.”

Mr. Padilla's situation, as an American declared an enemy combatant and held without charges by his own government, was extraordinary and the conditions of his detention appear to have been unprecedented in the military justice system.

Philip D. Cave, a former judge advocate general for the Navy and now a lawyer specializing in military law, said, “There's nothing comparable in terms of severity of confinement, in terms of how Padilla was held, especially considering that this was pretrial confinement.”

Ali al-Marri, a Qatari and Saudi dual citizen and the only enemy combatant currently detained in the United States, has made similar claims of isolation and deprivation at the brig in South Carolina. The Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Vician, said Sunday that he could not comment on the methods used to escort Mr. Padilla to the dentist. Blackened goggles and earphones are rarely employed in internal prison transports in the United States, but riot gear is sometimes used for violent prisoners.

One of Mr. Padilla's lawyers, Orlando do Campo, said, however, that Mr. Padilla was a “completely docile” prisoner. “There was not one disciplinary problem with Jose ever, not one citation, not one act of disobedience,” said Mr. do Campo, who is a lawyer at the Miami federal public defender's office.

In his affidavit, Mr. Patel said, “I was told by members of the brig staff that Mr. Padilla's temperament was so docile and inactive that his behavior was like that of ‘a piece of furniture.' ”

Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers are locked in a tug of war over the relevancy of Mr. Padilla's military detention to the present criminal case. Federal prosecutors have asked the judge to forbid Mr. Padilla's lawyers from mentioning the circumstances of his military detention during the trial, maintaining that their accusations could “distract and inflame the jury.”

But defense lawyers say it is unconscionable to ignore Mr. Padilla's military detention because, among other reasons, it altered him in a way that will impinge on his trial.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y., who examined Mr. Padilla for a total of 22 hours in June and September, said in an affidavit filed Friday that he “lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense.”

“It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation,” Dr. Hegarty said in an affidavit for the defense.

Mr. Padilla's status was abruptly changed to criminal defendant from enemy combatant last fall. At the time, the Supreme Court was weighing whether to take up the legality of his military detention — and thus the issue of the president's authority to seize an American citizen on American soil and hold him indefinitely without charges — when the Bush administration pre-empted its decision by filing criminal charges against Mr. Padilla.

Mr. Padilla was added as a defendant in a terrorism conspiracy case already under way in Miami. The strong public accusations made during his military detention — about the dirty bomb, Al Qaeda connections and supposed plans to set off natural gas explosions in apartment buildings — appear nowhere in the indictment against him. The indictment does not allege any specific violent plot against America.

Mr. Padilla is portrayed in the indictment as the recruit of a “North American terror support cell” that sent money, goods and recruits abroad to assist “global jihad” in general, with a special interest in Bosnia and Chechnya. Mr. Padilla, the indictment asserts, traveled overseas “to participate in violent jihad” and filled out an application for a mujahedin training camp in Afghanistan.

Michael Caruso, a public defender for Mr. Padilla, pleaded “absolutely not guilty” for him to charges of conspiracy and of providing material support to terrorists. Mr. Padilla faces two charges that each carry a maximum penalty of 15 years.

Over the summer, Judge Marcia G. Cooke of United States District Court in Miami threw out the most serious charge, of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country, saying that it replicated accusations in the other counts and could lead to multiple punishments for a single crime. This was a setback for the government, which has appealed the dismissal.

Mr. Padilla's lawyers say they have had a difficult time persuading him that they are on his side.

From the time Mr. Padilla was allowed access to counsel, Mr. Patel visited him repeatedly in the brig and in the Miami detention center, and Mr. Padilla has observed Mr. Patel arguing on his behalf in Miami federal court.

But, Mr. Patel said in his affidavit, his client is nonetheless mistrustful. “Mr. Padilla remains unsure if I and the other attorneys working on his case are actually his attorneys or another component of the government's interrogation scheme,” Mr. Patel said.

Mr. do Campo said that Mr. Padilla was not incommunicative, and that he expressed curiosity about what was going on in the world, liked to talk about sports and demonstrated particularly keen interest in the Chicago Bears.

But the defense lawyers' questions often echo the questions interrogators have asked Mr. Padilla, and when that happens, he gets jumpy and shuts down, the lawyers said.

Dr. Hegarty said Mr. Padilla refuses to review the video recordings of his interrogations, which have been released to his lawyers but remain classified.

He is especially reluctant to discuss what happened in the brig, fearful that he will be returned there some day, Mr. Patel said in his affidavit.

“During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body,” Mr. Patel said. “The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel.”

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