The Bradley University computer science student was arrested on Dec. 12, 2001, at his home in Peoria, Ill. He was charged with credit fraud, and with lying to investigators. Just before he went to trial, he was kidnapped - on the orders of President Bush. Like a lynch mob in the old South, federal agents whisked him out of the detention facility where he was being held and took him away, to a place where they could mete out their own kind of justice. He wasn't hanged - but he was held incommunicado for 16 months, and subjected, his lawyers say, to punishing physical abuse.
His name is Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, he is a citizen of Qatar who was studying in the U.S. legally, and the government argues that he's a sleeper al-Qaida operative. He was spirited away to a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., in June 2003, shortly after the Department of Justice informed the Pentagon that the president could disregard the statutory constraints against cruelty or maltreatment of military detainees. Mr. Bush signed an order declaring Mr. al-Marri an "enemy combatant," with the intent of removing him from the rule of law.
But the rule of law found him this week, when a federal appeals court in Alexandria, Va., told the government it was way out of bounds. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of Maryland wrote in the majority opinion: "To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the president calls them 'enemy combatants,' would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution - and the country." The government can try Mr. al-Marri in a court of law, or deport him, or release him, the opinion said - "but military detention of al-Marri must cease."
The government, naturally, intends to appeal. Its problem is that it can't really put Mr. al-Marri on trial, because of the way it has grossly violated his basic legal rights. But to think that there are lawyers, trained in American law schools and working on behalf of American taxpayers, who will continue to argue that the law and the Constitution have no meaning in this country - that should be disturbing to any patriotic American.
Mr. al-Marri may well be an agent of al-Qaida. But he may not be - and the point is, it's not up to the president to make unilateral declarations of a person's guilt or innocence. We have faith (shaken, to be sure, but not extinguished) in the American judicial system to dispense appropriate justice. The government, on the other hand, has done more damage to the rule of law than any jihadist could ever hope to accomplish.