MIAMI - A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a key terrorism charge, the only one carrying a potential life sentence, against suspected al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla.

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed with federal prosecutors in Miami that the charge that Padilla and his two codefendants conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas did not duplicate other counts in the indictment.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke ruled last summer that the three charges in the indictment contained nearly identical elements and could subject the defendants to extra punishment for the same act, violating protections against double jeopardy. Yesterday's ruling reverses Cooke's decision.

Padilla, 36, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport; the government alleged he was plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a major U.S. city. President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, and he was held at a Navy brig without criminal charge for 31/2 years. In late 2005, he was added to the Miami case, which does not include the "dirty bomb" allegations.

Yesterday's ruling brings the case a step closer to trial as scheduled April 16.

"We are gratified by the 11th Circuit's swift decision and look forward to presenting the evidence at trial," U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said in a statement.

Defense lawyers have 21 days to ask that the panel rehear the case or that the full appeals court take it up. Attorneys for Padilla and his codefendants did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The two other main terrorism-support charges against Padilla and his codefendants carry maximum prison sentences of 15 years each.

Padilla is charged with being part of a North American terror-support cell that provided personnel, materiel and money to extremist Islamic causes. He and codefendants Adham Amin Hassoun, 44, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 45, have pleaded not guilty.

Padilla contends he was tortured in custody, and his lawyers say he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that raises questions about his competence for trial.

Federal officials deny the torture allegations, but the judge ordered a competency exam and expects results next month.