WASHINGTON — The federal government will hold off for now on a plan to return to Syria an American citizen accused of fighting with Islamic State militants. His attorneys have called that a "death warrant" and asked a judge to block the move.
At a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan asked both sides for more information before ruling and set a hearing for June 20. She also encouraged the sides to try to find a mutually agreeable solution on the man's release.
The man has been detained as an enemy combatant for nine months, and his detention has become a test case for how the government should treat U.S. citizens picked up on the battlefield and accused of having ties to IS extremists battling America and its allies.
The Trump administration notified Chutkan on Wednesday that it would release the man, a dual American-Saudi citizen who has not been identified publicly by name, in Syria in "no sooner than 72 hours." The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the man, said the government's plan amounted to a decision to "dump an American citizen onto the side of the road in a war-torn country without any assurances of protection and no identification."
On Friday, Chutkan suggested some support for the government's proposal, telling ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz that Syria was where the man was before he surrendered. Chutkan asked: "Didn't he voluntarily take himself to Syria?" She asked what authority she had to "second-guess" the government's decision.
But Chutkan also expressed concern about the government's plan to release him to Syria, a country the government warns citizens against traveling to, and the fact he'd be released without a passport or other identification. Attorney James Burnham, representing the government, said the man didn't have a passport when he was arrested but that the government would explore whether it could give him some kind of identifying documents. Burnham said the locations the government proposed for releasing the man are safer than where he was picked up.
The man surrendered in mid-September to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria. Court documents filed by the government say that when he surrendered he was carrying thumb drives containing thousands of files, including files on how to make improvised explosive devices and bombs. The ACLU says the man was in Syria to chronicle the conflict and was trying to flee the violence when he surrendered. Hafetz, the man's attorney, also expressed concern Friday that if released in Syria, the man could be again detained by Syrian Democratic Forces.
The man is currently being held in a U.S. military detention facility in Iraq.