Padilla Trial Gets Under Way With a Focus on History

Recently, the Herald bemoaned the many things the Padilla trial won’t be about. Indeed, the government has dropped from its indictments a good bit of the juicy stuff: gone are the dirty bombs, the meetings with top Al-Quaeda operatives, the attempted bombing of buildings in New York. But yesterday, with jury selection finally over, the proceedings against Padilla were officially kicked off with opening statements from all sides – and as it stands now, the case looks fascinating.

The three defendants – Jose Padilla, Adham Amin Hassoun, and Kifah Wael Jayyous -- are now charged with providing material support to terrorist groups and with various counts of what boils down to conspiracy to injure property and to defraud the United States. The government’s case, relying largely on taped phone conversations between the men, contends that they purposefully supported terrorist organizations and activities. The government will play recordings of them talking about "jihad," and the need to support the "Mujahideen," – arranging in coded language, says the prosecution, the transfer of monies to terrorist groups and for Jose Padilla to be trained as a terrorist.

Defense lawyers, for their part, don’t deny the men spoke of things like "jihad." Instead, they call into question what those words mean and, more importantly, to whom and in what context they apply. And that’s what potentially makes this trial so interesting. “The government,” Hassoun’s lawyer Jeanne Baker stated within minutes of opening, “is rewriting history.”

Did she say history? When is the last time you heard anyone talking about that?

Indeed, as the various defense lawyers made their opening remarks, they opened one historical can of worms after another. “Our story begins in 1992, in Bosnia,” began Hassoun attorney Kenneth Swartz, taking time to explain where Bosnia is on a map. “Many tens of thousands of women and children were slaughtered just because they were Muslim. And that is where the Mujahideen went – to help, to give relief . . . we were behind that, we the United States. But today we are calling them terrorists.”

“You’re going to hear about ‘radical Islam,’ ‘Sharia,’ ‘Jihad,’” said Padilla attorney Anthony Natale, continuing the history lesson theme. “[This trial] will take you around the world – you’ll hear about Chechnya, Kosovo, Afghanistan. . .”

In short, the defense seems eager to highlight all those historical complexities (that Reagan once called the Afghani Mujahideen "Freedom Fighters," for example) and cultural nuances – the broad use of words like "jihad," the vast range and diversity of Islamic groups worldwide -- that were shoved quietly under the carpet on 9/11 to clear the way for immediate and interminable military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their goal: to depict the defendants as deeply religious and deeply concerned, donating time and money to humanitarian groups engaged in peaceful ‘jihads’ for justice.

Proving or defending conspiracy hinges not so much on facts – what was said when – as intentions. Both defense and prosecution, therefore, will attempt to take the jury into the minds of these three Muslim-Americans. They will offer radically different interpretations of how these men saw the world and their place in it, how they practiced their religion, and what being American – as well as Muslim -- meant to them.

Maybe we’ll learn something. --Isaiah Thompson

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