Padilla's Plea in Terror Case Delayed for His New Lawyers

Times Staff Writer

Terrorism suspect Jose Padilla, held 3 1/2 years by the government without charges, was supposed to get his chance Friday to answer the felony counts brought against him as an alleged backer of Islamic war overseas. But the judge postponed the procedure until next week.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry L. Garber rescheduled for Thursday Padilla's plea and the hearing to determine whether he should be freed on bond. The delay is to give newly appointed lawyers from the federal public defender's office in Miami time to confer with a New York City attorney who had already been representing Padilla.

Andrew G. Patel, the New York lawyer, told reporters that Padilla, 35, an alleged Al Qaeda operative, would plead not guilty to charges that he and four co-defendants plotted to support Islamic jihad abroad.

"We will be providing him with a zealous defense," Patel said.

Padilla, a U.S. citizen born in New York, was arrested by the FBI in May 2002 in Chicago after he flew in from Pakistan. U.S. officials accused him of being party to an Al Qaeda plot to detonate a "dirty bomb" -- an explosive laced with radioactive isotopes -- in the United States. President Bush ordered him detained as an "enemy combatant," and until Thursday he had been held in a South Carolina naval brig.

Last November, Padilla was added to an indictment, originally drawn up in South Florida in 2004, that accuses him of conspiracy to murder people overseas, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, and providing such support.

A onetime Chicago gang member who converted to Islam after moving to Florida, Padilla allegedly took terrorism training courses at a camp in Afghanistan in 2001. He allegedly plotted with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the reputed architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in the United States with natural gas.

The Florida indictment makes no mention of the dirty-bomb or apartment plots. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for Padilla to be sent to Miami for trial, rejecting a lower court's finding that the Bush administration had improperly held him in the brig with charges that were different than those finally brought in federal court.

His arms and legs shackled, wearing glasses and a khaki prison jumpsuit, Padilla said little during Friday's brief hearing. At one point, he motioned with a cuffed hand toward his mother, Estela Ortega Lebron, who sat in the front row. She declined to speak to reporters.

Patel, who had objected to Padilla's lengthy detention without charges, said his client would finally have the right of any American accused of a crime: the chance to prove his innocence at a trial.

"Mr. Padilla will have the opportunity to defend himself, and the government has the burden of proof," Patel said.

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