CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – In this genteel Southern city, attorney Andy Savage takes on the cases that get the locals’ tongues wagging. It was Savage who represented the pastor and his wife, after they set fire to their Bethel AME Church just outside of town; Savage who defended the mother accused of allowing her children to die of extreme heat exposure after leaving them in a parked car for several hours; and Savage, again, who rose to the defense of Albert Parish, a former Charleston Southern University economist, who perpetrated a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. So there was little surprise, even among casual observers, when Savage showed up at the federal courthouse in Charleston last week, just moments after federal agents temporarily blocked the tree-lined street in front of it and cleared a path for the passage of a prisoner transport van, which quickly proceeded up the courthouse’s driveway and disappeared.
Nearly six years after being designated an enemy combatant by President George W. Bush and thrown into solitary confinement in the Navy Brig just outside of town, Ali Saleh al-Marri had arrived at the courthouse to face charges that he had provided material aid to al-Qaida in its terrorist war against America.
Al-Marri’s case – and more specifically, the question of the legality of detaining an individual in a military prison for years without charges – was to have been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court later this spring.
But that dispute, and possibly the issues surrounding it, was effectively rendered moot when President Barack Obama broke with the Bush administration in February and ordered al-Marri moved out of military custody.
“I took this case because I was deeply troubled by that question, and by the idea that anyone – including any American – could be picked up and held indefinitely without charges,” Savage told the Courthouse News Service over the weekend, shortly after he learned that his client had been moved to the Federal Correctional Institution in Peoria, Ill., where al-Marri will be arraigned on criminal charges on Monday.
“But to tell you the truth, I still have concerns about this case,” he continued. “Without a definitive ruling on the illegality of this type of detention, the option is still left out there.”
“On a more personal level, in regard to my client, I’m also concerned that the gains we’ve made in terms of the quality of his incarceration will now be eroded, and that effectively, in regard to the conditions he’ll now be facing, we’re effectively back to square one.”
Regardless of whether one believes al-Marri is a terrorist, as the government contends, or that he is not, the bare bones of the case are these:
In September, 2001, al-Marri, a married father of five, moved from his native Qatar to the United States to study for a Masters Degree at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
Branded a “suspicious individual” immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, al-Marri was picked up and held by the FBI as a material witness to the attacks in December 2001, and, after being transferred to the Second District of New York, was charged early the next year with credit card fraud, lying to federal investigators and other criminal offenses alleged based on information found on his home computer.
For the next year, al-Marri was held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, and represented by a pair of public defenders provided by the Given Law Firm in New Jersey. Then, in June 2003, President Bush signed the one page order that declared him an enemy combatant, and for a time, al-Marri, simply disappeared.
“Initially, no one knew what had happened to him, nobody knew where he was,” Savage said. “Finally, his attorneys – who had been in the midst of arguing for a change of venue back to the Central District of Illinois – found out he’d been transferred to South Carolina. That’s when they asked me to become involved.”
Savage said he doesn’t know why al-Marri was ultimately transferred to the Navy brig, which is located on the grounds of an active, and highly secure naval Weapons Station outside of Charleston.
“Some have suggested that it’s because of the conservative nature of the 4th Circuit, but it could just have easily just been because that’s where the brig is,” he said.
By now, the government of Qatar had stopped paying al-Marri’s legal fees, the public defenders said. If he were going to jump into the case, it would have to be pro bono.
“Of course, having always been very interested in Constitutional law, and because of the principles involved, there was no way I could say no,” Savage said.
From the moment he arrived at the navy brig, al-Marri was held in solitary confinement and subjected to frequent interrogations. Savage described the conditions, which he would only learn of later, as “deplorable.”
“His nine-by-six concrete cell had no bedding, the temperature was turned way down, and he his socks and shoes had been taken away from him,” Savage said. “The windows of his cell were blacked out, and he was denied visits by his attorneys, his family, and even the Red Cross.”
In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the enemy combatants being held by the Bush administration did indeed have the right to be represented by an attorney. But it would still be months before Savage and his client actually met face to face.
“The problem was, in order to meet with our client, I and the attorneys from Givens had to qualify for and be given top security clearance,” he said. “Even then, before our first meeting, we were briefed in regard to what we could talk to him about, were told the session would be audio and videotaped, and also told that representatives of the Defense Intelligence Agency would be in the room with us.”
The room itself was very small, very secure, and barely wide enough to accommodate three attorneys, let alone the prisoner himself and the government investigators and security detail.
When al-Marri himself was brought in, he was in heavy shackles, which were chained to the floor when he sat down cont.