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A courtroom battle over the fate of an American citizen being held in Iraq as an enemy combatant took a new turn on Friday as the U.S. military put on hold plans to forcibly return him to Syria in the coming days. The latest twist came after U.S. lawyers for the man said the proposed release into an active battlefield in Syria would put him in harm's way.
Justice Department lawyers representing the U.S. military in the case made a commitment not to release the man until at least June 21st during an appearance in federal court on Friday, according to Dror Ladin, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the detainee in the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, saying she needed more information about the safety of releasing the detainee in Syria, set a court hearing for June 20th to decide whether to approve the ACLU's motion for a restraining order against the prisoner's release.
Ladin said the U.S.-born detainee, who has dual Saudi citizenship but has refused to go to Saudi Arabia, is seeking a safe release.
Ideally, the government would offer a safe release, he said. The court encouraged the government to find solutions that are not dangerous, he said. "We stand ready to talk. The petitioner stands ready to accept a reasonable safe release. He doesn't want to stay in custody one more minute than is necessary."
The unidentified man, referred to as John Doe in court filings, was captured in Syria in September by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militia groups fighting Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
The man has told investigators that he traveled to Syria to report on the status of refugees there, was captured by Islamic State, and was then forced to work for the group. According to the ACLU, he was fleeing IS for Turkey when he was captured by SDF, who accused him of being an IS fighter and handed him over to the U.S. military.
The U.S. military recently proposed to hand him over to Saudi Arabia, but an appeals court blocked the transfer. The government notified a lower court on Wednesday that it would instead release him in the vicinity of where he was captured in Syria no sooner than 72 hours.
The military said it would return the clothing the man was wearing when he was captured and give him $4,210 in cash, an un-activated cell phone, and enough food and water to last several days.
The Defense Department "has taken all necessary and feasible precautions to ensure the safe release of petitioner," according to a court filing.
But ACLU lawyers argued that releasing John Doe in Syria would imperil his life. To stop the planned release, ACLU lawyers filed a motion for a restraining order late Thursday, arguing that an unsafe release in Syria would violate (John Doe's) constitutional and statutory rights.
"The government has effectively admitted that it has no reason to continue detaining our client and that he does not pose a threat, ACLU lawyer Jonathan Hafetz said. "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."
He called it "a disgraceful way to treat an American citizen."
Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, nearly 300 Americans have attempted to leave or have left the U.S. to fight in Syria and Iraq, according to George Washington University's Program on Extremism.
Source: Voice of America