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Federal Judge Blocks Transfer Of American Being Held In Syria


The U.S. government has been holding an American citizen in Iraq without charge for more than seven months. Yesterday, a federal judge blocked the government from transferring the man against his will to a third country.

NPR's Ryan Lucas has been following this case and is here to tell us more. Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about who this person is and how he came to be in U.S. custody in Iraq.

LUCAS: So this detainee is a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen. We don't know his name. That hasn't been made public. But he surrendered to a Syrian militia backed by the United States in September. That militia handed him over to the American military, and the military has held him as an enemy combatant in Iraq since then. Now, the government suspects he was a member of the Islamic State, but it hasn't charged him with anything. It's holding him, as I said, as an enemy combatant.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union took up the case last fall to challenge his detention, and this has been a long-running court battle now for several months. At first, the government said the ACLU didn't have standing and refused to grant them access to the man to see if he wanted to indeed challenge his detention. When the court ordered the government in December to allow the ACLU to talk to him, he confirmed that he did want the ACLU to represent him and challenge his detention.

SHAPIRO: He's an American citizen, so why does the U.S. government want to transfer him to a third country?

LUCAS: So transferring him would essentially make the case moot because if he's not in U.S. custody, the argument goes, he's no longer an issue. The judge ordered the government to give a 72-hour notice before it moved to transfer him. The government gave that notice earlier this week, starting the 72-hour clock. The country that agreed to take the detainee has not been identified publicly, but we believe that it is Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: Which would make sense because he's a Saudi citizen...

LUCAS: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: ...In addition to being a U.S. citizen.

LUCAS: Exactly. Now, the man made clear through his attorneys that he doesn't consent to the transfer, so the ACLU asked the judge yesterday to prevent it from taking place. Now, minutes before that 72-hour clock ran out last night at 8 p.m., the judge granted the request and blocked the transfer. Now, this morning, the government appealed. That kicks the case to the federal appeals court here in Washington.

Now, the government argues it has the authority to detain the man and transfer him. The ACLU says the man should be able to challenge his detention in court. And the government hasn't demonstrated that it has the legal authority to send this American against his will to a third country, so this case is going to be fought out in the courts.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what else we know about this man. I mean, you haven't used his name. Do we even know who he is?

LUCAS: We do not know his name. That has not been made public. But we have learned more about him from court filings over the past several months. So we know that he was born in the U.S. to Saudi parents and grew up in the Middle East. He attended college in Louisiana, studied electrical engineering. He's married and has a young daughter. The government says Islamic State files indicate that he was registered as a fighter, but the man says he went to Syria to work as a freelance writer. He says he was imprisoned by ISIS and released on condition that he worked for the group.

SHAPIRO: Ryan, this touches on so many big legal issues that were first raised shortly after 9/11 about how the U.S. detains terrorists for how long...

LUCAS: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...And other countries' rendition. How is this all being handled?

LUCAS: Well, a lot of these are questions that the government is very eager to avoid.

SHAPIRO: Which is why they want to get rid of the guy.

LUCAS: Which is why they want to hand him to a third country. But it - this is really - if you take a step back, this has become a test case of sorts for how the government is going to handle terrorism suspects, U.S. citizens in particular, that it captures on foreign battlefields. And this also raises a lot of questions about how long the government can hold its own citizens without charge.

SHAPIRO: Remarkable that the U.S. has been pondering these questions since shortly after 9/11, and we still do not have answers to so many of them.

LUCAS: Right.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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