U.S. military officials plan to release an American citizen accused of supporting ISIS “under safe conditions,” and with $4,210 and a new cellphone near the Syrian town where he was first captured last September, according to a filing Thursday in the unusual case.
The intended release would be done over the objections of the man, who has been held without charges in U.S. military custody in Iraq.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has been representing the man, will ask a federal judge in Washington to block the action, which it condemned as “disgraceful” and a de facto “death warrant.”
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan scheduled a hearing on the government plan for Friday morning.
The cash is the same amount the man was carrying when he was taken into custody, the government said.
The details of the government’s plans for the man, identified in filings as John Doe, came in an affidavit from a Department of Defense official, who described the release as “traditional military practice that is employed in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility” and consistent with the military’s “obligations under the law of war.”
“The release plan sounds crazy at first blush, but you have to keep in mind that Doe voluntarily went to Syria to begin with,” said Bobby Chesney, an expert in national security law at the University of Texas School of Law.
It’s common in war detention settings, he said, to return someone to “the point of capture — at least if it’s safe to do so, and that’s one of the questions for the court.”
The expected legal battle over the man’s release is the latest twist in the case that has tested whether U.S. citizens captured on a battlefield as suspected “enemy combatants” have the right to challenge their detentions.
Nine months ago, the man was turned over to U.S. forces after being captured at a rebel Syrian Democratic Forces checkpoint in Syria and declaring his U.S. citizenship. He grew up in Saudi Arabia and also had Saudi citizenship.
The man was questioned for U.S. intelligence purposes, but American officials said they lacked admissible evidence to charge him with a crime.
Instead, the government announced plans in April to transfer the man, against his will, to a third country that was not publicly identified.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last month upheld an earlier ruling from Chutkan that prevented the government from “forcibly — and irrevocably” transferring the man without allowing him to challenge his detention.
In a sign of the significant questions raised by the case, the appeals court said in its ruling, “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 Pentagon said in its filing Thursday it intends to release the man with the money and clothing he had when first detained, plus food and water to last several days, and the new phone.
ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said the government’s “meager offer to return his money and give him a cellphone does not remotely provide any protection from the violence and danger that exists throughout Syria.”
The government has said in court filings that the man was born in the United States but raised in Saudi Arabia. He attended college in Louisiana, is married and has a 3-year-old daughter whom he tried to register as an American citizen on two trips to the U.S. in 2014, according to court filings.