After an extensive court battle, the Trump administration and ACLU reached a settlement agreement allowing the detainee to be released in a third country, where he will once again be free. Parts of the agreement are confidential, and he is officially remaining unidentified for his safety and privacy.
In September 2017, the unidentified American was fleeing violence in Syria, where he had traveled to research and document the Syrian civil war. He was then seized by Kurdish forces in Syria at a rebel Syrian Democratic Forces checkpoint and declared his U.S. citizenship. Then he was handed over to the US military, where he was labeled an “enemy combatant” and held without charges.
His story might have ended there, with him secretly detained indefinitely, if not for the reporting of The Daily Beast, which revealed his existence to the public.
The man, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and is a dual citizen, was questioned for U.S. intelligence purposes, but American officials have said they lack admissible evidence to charge him with a crime.
For four months the government blocked the American’s access to a lawyer and the court system, despite his request.
In December 2017, US District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that the Defense Department must allow “immediate and unmonitored access to the detainee for the sole purpose of determining whether the detainee wishes for the ACLU to continue this action on his behalf.”
In April 2018 Chutkan blocked the government from transferring him to another unnamed country. Attorneys for the man, held without charges for seven months, had challenged the move, saying the U.S. government lacks the legal authority to transfer him to a third country.
The ACLU asked the court to temporarily block the transfer and require the U.S. government to cite a specific, “positive legal authority” to move an American citizen prisoner to a third country beyond an assertion that the other country has a “strong interest” in the citizen, according to court papers.
Justice Department attorney James Burnham said handing off the man would end the U.S. government’s control over the detainee.
“It’s not release,” Chutkan responded, “if you’re simply giving him over to another jailer.”
The Trump administration appealed, but the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected its arguments in a historic opinion in May.
The court emphasized that what the administration sought to do was unprecedented, writing, “We know of no instance — in the history of the United States — in which the government has forcibly transferred an American citizen from one foreign country to another.” The court stressed that it is “vital” that judges “not give short shrift to the values that this country holds dear or to the privilege that is American citizenship.” [MORE]
ACLU said, “Sunday’s release comes after months of continued litigation as we demanded that the government either charge or release our client. In response, the government claimed the power to imprison him indefinitely without charge, accusing him of being an ISIS fighter. Our client not only contested the allegations, but also maintained that the government had to prove its allegations in a trial if it wanted to continue holding him.”
“The vitality of our Constitution depends on the determination of judges to protect individuals against government overreach. This should be the last time any administration attempts to deny an American’s basic rights.”