Padilla was minor player, lawyer tells judge

MIAMI – Even if former U.S. “enemy combatant” Jose Padilla was part of a global jihadist conspiracy, he was at most a bit player and should be treated accordingly, his lawyer said at his sentencing hearing.

Jurors convicted the one-time “dirty bomb” suspect and two other men in August on charges of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people abroad, conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism, and providing material support for terrorism.

Prosecutors have urged a judge to sentence all three to life in prison.

None was accused of committing violent acts themselves, but the jury found they provided money and recruits for Islamist fighters who waged war for years in Kosovo, Somalia, Chechnya and Afghanistan with the aim of establishing Taliban-style governments.

The charges listed dozens of acts committed in connection with the conspiracy, but jurors were not required to say specifically which individual acts they thought were proved.

The government’s main evidence against Padilla, 37, was an application to attend an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Prosecutors did not present any evidence he actually went there.

If the prosecution is correct, “you have to concede that Mr. Padilla played a minimal role,” defense attorney Michael Caruso said in arguing for leniency at a sentencing hearing that was expected to continue into next week.

“These conflicts were occurring over multiple years over multiple locations without Mr. Padilla’s involvement.”

But a prosecutor called Padilla a trained al Qaeda killer deserving of life in prison and compared him to a hit man in a murder-for-hire.

“These groups could not perpetrate the atrocities that they do if it weren’t for the personnel, the recruits, the people they train,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Killinger said.

In handing down sentences, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke must decide whether the men committed crimes with the aim of influencing government conduct, which would lengthen their sentences under a “terrorism enhancement” provision.

She also must decide whether Padilla’s co-defendants, Adham Hassoun and Kifah Jayyousi, supervised other co-conspirators, which would add more time to their prison terms.

The case has tested U.S. presidential authority in combating terrorism.

Padilla was a former street gang member and Muslim convert who moved to Egypt in 1998 to study Arabic and Islam, according to trial evidence. Prosecutors said Hassoun recruited him at a Florida mosque and sent him abroad to train with al Qaeda.

Padilla was arrested in Chicago upon returning from Egypt in 2002. He was accused of plotting a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack and U.S. President George W. Bush ordered him held in a military prison as an “enemy combatant.”

Faced with a Supreme Court challenge to Bush’s authority to imprison a U.S. citizen without charge, the government added Padilla to a terrorism support case in Miami and turned him over to civilian authorities in 2006. Padilla never was charged in a bomb plot.