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US antiterror tactics crimp new terror case

Some of the strongest evidence against Jose Padilla, whose trial begins Monday, was coerced and can't be used in court.

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When Jose Padilla was taken into custody at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, government officials announced with great fanfare that he was plotting with Al Qaeda to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in a major US city.

Now, five years later, Mr. Padilla is about to stand trial in federal court here. But there is no mention of a dirty bomb plot anywhere in the case.

It is not an oversight. A criminal trial is not intended to be a history lesson. Instead, to protect Padilla's right to a fair trial, the case against him is based on a much more skimpy presentation of evidence.

The omission illustrates a fundamental tension between the Bush administration's iron-fisted approach to intelligence gathering in the war on terror and a US citizen's entitlement to constitutional and other protections of the criminal-justice system.

The alleged dirty-bomb plot was uncovered through the use of coercive interrogation tactics – torture according to Padilla and others – which renders the information too unreliable to be admitted in an American court. As a result, federal prosecutors were forced to build their Miami conspiracy case using evidence obtained through noncoercive means and investigative methods that did not violate core constitutional guarantees.

Barring the dirty bomb and other improperly obtained evidence from the criminal case has greatly complicated prosecution efforts to win a conviction and potentially put Padilla behind bars for the rest of his life.

But at the same time, defense lawyers are worried that their client's pretrial notoriety as the Al Qaeda "Dirty Bomber" could make it impossible for Padilla to receive a fair trial.

US District Judge Marcia Cooke is expected to press hard this week to try to find 12 jurors and six alternates who have never heard of Padilla, or who are able to put any knowledge of the dirty bomb allegations aside and base their deliberations solely on the evidence and testimony presented in the courtroom.

Conspiracy case with no specific plot

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