By DEB RIECHMANN
WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday is weighing the fate of a U.S. citizen who has been accused of working with Islamic State militants in Syria, but never charged.
The Trump administration has been holding the unidentified citizen at a U.S. military facility in Iraq since he surrendered on the Syrian battlefield more than seven months ago. The man, who once lived in Louisiana, is being held as an enemy combatant and the government now wants to transfer him to a third country — presumably Saudi Arabia, where he has dual citizenship.
Court documents filed by the government say that when he surrendered to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, he was carrying thumb drives containing thousands of files. There were 10,000 or more photos — some depicting pages of military-style manuals. There also were files on how to make specific types of improvised explosive devices and bombs.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing him, claims he was in Syria to chronicle the conflict and was trying to flee the violence when he gave himself up in September 2017. ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz has argued that any transfer violates the detainee’s constitutional and legal rights because the government hasn’t proved that it legally detained him in the first place.
The detainee “maintains that he is being unlawfully held and no charges are pending against him in any country,” the ACLU said in its filing protesting the transfer. The detainee “continues to demand, as he has since he first spoke with counsel, that the government either charge him with a crime or release him from custody as a free man.”
As required by the court, the government gave 72 hours’ advance notice of its intent to transfer the detainee to a third country. The detainee could be moved to Saudi Arabia, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The ACLU on Wednesday asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to block the transfer and hopes she will rule before the 72 hours expires at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday.
The government said the receiving country has a strong interest in the detainee and that U.S. relations with the nation could be harmed if the transfer is not allowed to go through.
In rebutting that argument, the ACLU said that if the judge rules in favor of the government, it would mean that it could apprehend U.S. citizens abroad, detain them, declare them enemy combatants and then transfer them to the custody of any country that says it has an interest.
“Given this individual’s dual Saudi citizenship, and provided the U.S. has obtained appropriate humanitarian assurances, the judge may find a legal basis for the transfer,” said Nate Jones, a former staff member of the National Security Council and founder of Culper Partners consulting group.
“If the judge does allow it to proceed, the U.S. government may dodge a bullet by avoiding judicial scrutiny of some complicated and very consequential legal questions, including the rights afforded to Americans held in military detention.”