This image released on Sept. 3, 2017 shows fighters standing next to a sign in Arabic which reads, 'Deir el-Zour welcomes you.' Photo: SANA
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The US Justice Department announced Wednesday that an American alleged ISIS group combatant held in Iraq for over eight months would be released, potentially defusing a troubling detainee test case for the Trump administration.
After being blocked by a Washington court from handing over the dual US-Saudi citizen, identified only as "John Doe" to Saudi Arabia, the Justice Department said in a filing that it had decided to release the man in Syria, where he was originally taken prisoner.
But his legal representative, the American Civil Liberties Union, immediately said it would fight the release into war-torn Syria, which it called a "death warrant" for the man.
The release decision was an unexpected reversal after the government spent the months since the man was captured in September defending its power to hold him indefinitely, on grounds that he had been a "enemy combatant" in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
That made him the first American alleged member of ISIS caught on the battlefield, and the first known foreign member of a jihadist group taken into custody by the Trump administration.
Yet "John Doe" was never charged, and he said he was not involved with IS when he was detained in Syria.
The case raised questions about whether the Trump administration would introduce his case into the US justice system, hand him over to Saudi Arabia, or, as Trump had in the past threatened, send him to the Guantanamo military prison in Cuba.
Allowed to represent him, the ACLU successfully fought the decision two months ago to transfer him to another country — understood to be Saudi Arabia — without his agreement.
The court agreed with the ACLU's argument that that would violate the US constitutional rights of the man, who was born in the United States to a Saudi family.
In the filing Wednesday, the Justice Department said the US military had offered "John Doe" the choice of being released in an unnamed town in Syria or outside a Syrian camp for internally displaced persons.
But the man "did not identify a preference between the two locations and would not agree to the release" as proposed to him, the filing said.
"Accordingly, out of an abundance of caution, the department is filing this notice of its intent to release petitioner (Doe) in the town specified," it said.
The release would take place after a 72 hour waiting period ordered by the court.
In a statement, ACLU lawyer Jonathan Hafetz called the move "a disgraceful way to treat an American citizen."
"The government has effectively admitted that it has no reason to continue detaining our client and that he does not pose a threat. But, instead of offering a safe release, they want to dump an American citizen onto the side of the road in a war-torn country without any assurances of protection and no identification."
"What the government is offering our client is no release — it's a death warrant."