The United States wants to send to Saudi Arabia a U.S. citizen who was captured on the battlefield in Syria last fall and is suspected of supporting Islamic State.
Lawyers for the American, who is identified only as John Doe in court papers, claim that would violate his constitutional rights and asked a federal judge to order the government either to charge him with a crime or to release him from U.S. military custody in Iraq.
On Thursday evening, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan barred the government from transferring him, just before the deadline. During a court hearing Thursday, Chutkan seemed skeptical of government arguments that the transfer should be approved quickly.
“I have a U.S. citizen here that has rights that have to be considered carefully,” Chutkan said, adding that the right to challenge detention by the government is the “bedrock of our legal system.”
James M. Burnham, senior counsel at the Justice Department, argued that handing over the suspect would amount to a release from U.S. custody, and therefore would end his legal case in U.S. courts.
“It’s not release if you’re simply giving him over to another jailer,” Chutkan told him.
The strange case of the mystery American could set new legal and diplomatic boundaries for the U.S. war on terrorism.
Although dozens of Americans were charged and convicted of seeking to join or providing material support to terrorist groups in recent years, only a handful were designated enemy combatants. Courts ruled they still had their rights as U.S. citizens.
In September, the man surrendered to a Syrian Kurdish militia backed by the United States and was delivered to the U.S. military, which declared him an enemy combatant and put him in a military prison in Iraq.
U.S. authorities allege that the man supported Islamic State but they have been unable to produce enough evidence to charge him with a crime.
The man was questioned by US intelligence agents after his surrender but the courts are blocking that testimony and it can’t be used against him. The ACLU is trying to secure the man’s release. He claims he went to Syria as a freelance journalist and was kidnapped by ISIS.
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