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U.S. plans to release detained American 'enemy combatant' in Syria

"What the government is offering our client is no release — it's a death warrant," an attorney for the detained man said.
Image: The Pentagon building on Sept. 24, 2017
The Pentagon building seen on Sept. 24, 2017.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images file

The United States plans to release an American citizen detained as an enemy combatant in Syria — a move the man's attorney said amounts to a "death warrant."

In a court document unsealed Thursday, the Defense Department said it will give the unidentified man $4,210 in cash, the same amount he was carrying when he was captured, along with an unactivated cellphone and food and water "to last several days."

The clothing he had on him when he was picked up by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting ISIS, will also be returned to him, and the alliance will be notified of his release.

The Defense Department "has taken all necessary and feasible precautions to ensure the safe release of petitioner," the filing said.

An ACLU attorney filed a motion late Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order, saying the U.S. planned to "release him into an area that the government itself has repeatedly described as unsafe, and that is controlled by the same forces who have already demonstrated their hostility to Petitioner by shooting at him, beating him, and threatening him with death."

The man, whose identity has not been revealed, was picked up on a Syrian battlefield in September and accused of fighting for the Islamic State. He has been held overseas while the Trump administration wages a court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over his fate.

Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. could not "forcibly transfer" him to a third-party country such as Saudi Arabia, where he has dual citizenship, without proving to a court that he had fought for the enemy.

Then on Wednesday, Department of Justice attorneys filed a notice with a federal judge in Washington saying that the Defense Department will release the man, referred to as John Doe in court papers, in an unnamed Syrian town in three or more days.

That move would render moot John Doe's habeas corpus petition challenging the right of the U.S. to continue holding him without charges.

ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said releasing him in Syria — which is in the midst of a prolonged civil war — was a "death warrant."

"This is a disgraceful way to treat an American citizen," Hafetz said in a statement.

"Now, our fight for our client's right to due process has also become a fight for his right to life. We'll be asking the court to immediately intervene and ensure the safe release of our client."

In court papers, the U.S. has said the man joined ISIS in 2014 in Syria, attended a training camp, pledged allegiance to its leaders and was listed in an ISIS document as a "fighter."

He says he entered Syria as a freelance journalist and was kidnapped and forced to work for ISIS until he fled on a water truck and turned himself in to the Kurds, who handed him over to the U.S. military, according to court documents.

Without enough evidence to try the man on terrorism charges, the U.S. faced a dilemma over what to do with him. The Defense Department said it told the ACLU that it could release him in a Syrian town or outside a refugee camp but that his lawyers refused to state a preference.

U.S. officials also denied that the Syrian Defense Forces mistreated the detainee after seizing him last year.

A hearing is scheduled for Friday.