Back to News & Commentary

Al-Marri Sentence Proves Federal Courts Can Handle Terrorism Cases

Share This Page
November 2, 2009

Last week, a judge sentenced Ali al-Marri, the last “enemy combatant” held on U.S. soil, to eight years in prison. Although he faced up to 15 years, the judge sentenced al-Marri to 100 months (a little more than 8 years), taking into account the time he has already spent in military and civilian custody in departing from the sentencing guideline range. Al-Marri is expected to receive credit for the more than two years he spent in pre-trial detention both before and after he was declared an “enemy combatant.”

Al-Marri, a Qatari national, lawfully entered the U.S. in September 2001 with his wife and five children. He was initially arrested in December 2001 for credit card fraud by the FBI. Al-Marri pled not guilty and prepared to contest the charges, but in June 2003, on the eve of a hearing to suppress illegally seized evidence and less than a month before trial, President Bush declared al-Marri an al Qaeda agent and designated him an “enemy combatant” in the so-called “war on terror.” That same day, the military took custody of al-Marri and incarcerated him at the Navy brig in South Carolina, indefinitely and without charge.

The ACLU filed a habeas corpus petition on al-Marri’s behalf to challenge the constitutionality of his detention without charge or trial. The case was slated to be heard by the Supreme Court in April 2009, but in February, 2009, after nearly six years in detention without charge, the U.S. brought criminal charges against al-Marri for material support of terrorism. The government moved to dismiss the Supreme Court case as moot and transferred al-Marri from military to civilian custody. Because of this development, the Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case, but significantly, the Court vacated the lower court’s ruling that asserted the president could indefinitely detain “enemy combatants” without charge or trial.

In May, 2009, al-Marri pled guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In exchange, the government dropped a second charge of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Although al-Marri faced up to 15 years in prison for the criminal conviction, we argued that the court should take into account al-Marri’s eight years in custody, including almost six years at the Navy brig, much of it spent in isolation. We’re pleased that the court took the time spent into account. As Jon Hafetz, a lawyer with the ACLU’s National Security Project and counsel in the al-Marri case stated in a New York Times article, the sentence is “a powerful reminder that America’s civilian courts can deliver justice even in the most challenging circumstances.”