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

Image: The Pentagon building on Sept. 24, 2017
The Pentagon building seen on Sept. 24, 2017. Copyright Bill Clark
Copyright Bill Clark
By Tracy Connor with NBC News World News
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"What the government is offering our client is no release — it's a death warrant," an attorney for the detained man said.


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."

The unidentified man was picked up on a Syrian battlefield in September and accused of fighting for the terror group Islamic State. He's been held overseas while the Trump administration has waged a court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over his fate.

Last month, in a victory for the detainee, 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 federal judge in Washington 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 it would also endanger his client. Syria is in the midst of a civil war.

"What the government is offering our client is no release — it's 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 the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in 2014 in Syria, and that the man attended a training camp, pledged allegiance to its leader and was listed in an ISIS document as a "fighter."

He claimed 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. In the Wednesday filing, the U.S. said it told the ACLU it could release him in a Syrian town or outside a refugee camp but that his lawyers refused to state a preference.

The court filing by the government says the man "would not agree to the release as Respondent described it."

Hafetz said he will challenge the government's plan to release the man, who has been described in court papers as an electrical engineer with a wife and young child who has sporadically visited the U.S.

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