President Barack Obama ordered the Justice Department on Thursday to review the controversial case of Ali Saleh al-Marri, a native of Qatar who for nearly six years has been held in solitary confinement in the Navy's brig in Hanahan.
Obama's quick move reflects a "return of the rule of law," said al-Marri's attorney, Andy Savage, as he left the brig Thursday afternoon after speaking with his client.
"It's a positive development that raises everyone's hopes that he'll either be sent to criminal courts under the Department of Justice, or be repatriated if competent evidence is not there," he said. Al-Marri was "encouraged by the order but he doesn't typically show a lot of emotion."
Al-Marri is the only person classified as an enemy combatant on U.S. soil. He was living in Peoria, Ill., when the FBI arrested him as a material witness in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Prosecutors later charged him with credit card fraud, but shortly before his trial in 2003, President Bush classified him as an enemy combatant and ordered him held in the Charleston Naval Consolidated Brig without charges.
Al-Marri's lawyers later challenged his incarceration as unconstitutional, and his case is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amid that backdrop, Obama told reporters Thursday that al-Marri is "clearly a dangerous individual" but directed his attorney general to review al-Marri's case, as well as the cases of detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay.
"Because he is not held at Guantanamo Bay, al-Marri is not covered by the review mandated in the Review and Disposition Order," Obama said in his order. "Yet it is equally in the interests of the United States that the executive branch undertake a prompt and thorough review of the factual and legal basis for al-Marri's continued detention, and identify and thoroughly evaluate alternative dispositions."
Obama's order also seeks a delay in al-Marri's case before the Supreme Court during the attorney general's review.
Al-Marri has been held in a special wing of the brig that, unlike the camps at Guantanamo, has been off-limits to public scrutiny, despite claims from al-Marri and other former detainees that they were mistreated there.
The Post and Courier and other media outlets have requested access to the brig numerous times, but top Defense Department officials denied those requests. A Pentagon spokesman in Washington, D.C., handling brig issues didn't return phone calls or e-mails Thursday seeking comment.
Al-Marri claimed through his lawyers that soon after he was placed at the brig, he was tortured by Defense Department interrogators, allegations the Pentagon denied.
Savage said that after interrogators stopped, the Navy's brig personnel treated him more humanely.
"I have nothing but praise for the people who run the brig," Savage said, adding that he's mystified why officials haven't allowed representatives from the media into the brig when the Pentagon gave numerous tours of the camps at Guantanamo Bay.
Savage noted that the attorney general will do the review, not the Defense Department. "That in itself speaks loudly that the rule of law has been reintroduced into the situation. Everything until now has been handled at the SecDef (Secretary of Defense) level."
Meanwhile, Al-Marri's guilt or innocence still remains a mystery. The most damning information about al-Marri appeared in a book by former Attorney General John Ashcroft who said he believed that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11, "planned to use al-Marri to help facilitate this next wave of attacks focused on Los Angeles."
Savage maintained that his client was innocent and challenged Ashcroft's allegations. No one else has been arrested in connection with this so-called second wave of attacks, he said, "so how can you have a conspiracy of one?"
Savage also recently returned from the Middle East where he met with top-level officials of Qatar. Savage said if the government has no case against al-Marri, he could be transferred back to Qatar.
Noting Obama's description of al-Marri as dangerous, Savage added that "we don't know what the president's knowledge is, but if that's the case, he should be sent to criminal court. That's what we've been seeking all this time."