An American captured in Syria and suspected of working with ISIS forces there cannot be transferred out of U.S. custody, a federal judge in Washington ruled Thursday evening.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan issued a preliminary injunction blocking a U.S. plan to transfer the prisoner, currently being held by American forces in Iraq. The name of the country the detainee was facing transfer to was redacted from the public version of court filings, but he is known to be a U.S.-Saudi dual citizen, and it appears his likely destination was Saudi Arabia.
Chutkan’s rationale for the injunction, issued following a court hearing this morning, was not immediately released.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the unnamed prisoner, hailed Chutkan’s decision as vindication of the right of an American citizen not to be transferred to a foreign government against his will when no charges are pending against him.
“This ruling is a victory for the rule of law,” ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said. “The court is rightly protecting this U.S. citizen’s constitutional rights and checking the Trump administration’s excessive claims of executive power. The government cannot do whatever it pleases with a U.S. citizen without judicial review and a basis in law. … After over seven months of imprisonment, the government should either charge or release him. That’s how our justice system works.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said officials are studying the judge’s ruling.
“We are evaluating our options,” Kupec said.
Justice Department lawyers argued that delaying or rejecting the transfer would damage the ability of U.S. officials to negotiate prisoner transfers in the future.
U.S. officials say the detainee was turned over last September by Syrian Democratic Forces. Initial reports called the prisoner an ISIS fighter, but later court submissions were short on evidence that the individual had actually fought with ISIS. There were indications that he’d explored military tactics and was aligned with ISIS philosophy.
However, he also claimed to be a journalist and was traveling with press credentials of dubious provenance.
Chutkan, who is an appointee of President Barack Obama, issued an order in January requiring the U.S. government to provide 72 hours notice before transferring the prisoner out of American custody. Justice Department lawyers filed such a notice Monday and were promptly confronted by a motion from the ACLU to block the transfer.