I have been following the saga of the American citizen who was detained by the U.S. military in September 2017 while fleeing from violence in Syria. This story was reported on by a couple mainstream outlets, but for the most part was not given the time and attention it warranted.
Here’s what we know…
An American man had reportedly traveled to research and document the ongoing conflict in Syria when he was seized by Kurdish forces and handed over to the U.S. military. The Trump administration labeled him an “enemy combatant” and held him without charges for more than a year without officially charging him with a crime. Now, thanks to help from the American Civil Liberties Union, that unidentified American is finally free. Unfortunately, he was set free and forced to go live in an unidentified country that is not his home.
The ACLU reported:
“Sunday’s release comes after months of continued litigation as we demanded that the government either charge or release our client. In response, the government claimed the power to imprison him indefinitely without charge, accusing him of being an ISIS fighter. Our client not only contested the allegations, but also maintained that the government had to prove its allegations in a trial if it wanted to continue holding him.”
The story of his illegal secret detainment would have been lost to the pages of history if not for the reporting of The Daily Beast which first revealed his existence to the public. The Washington Post later revealed that the man was captured in Syria on September 12, 2017. He reportedly surrendered to a rebel group in Syria before being give to the U.S. military. According to The Washington Post, as told by anonymous “officials familiar with the case,” the Justice Department did not believe they had enough evidence to bring charges against him. The ACLU eventually stepped in to represent the man, despite attempts by the government to prevent the man from gaining access to legal representation.
“From the moment the American was imprisoned, his own government tried to deny him his constitutional rights,” the ACLU wrote upon the man’s release. “It kept his detention secret, denied his requests for a lawyer, and attempted to forcibly transfer him to a dangerous war zone.”
In December 2017 I reported the federal judge in the case challenged the U.S. government to justify the continued imprisonment of the man who had been denied access to a lawyer for four months. Despite the protests of the Trump Administration the ACLU gained access to the man and officially became his legal counsel. Throughout the case U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan expressed skepticism and frustration over the U.S. government’s arguments for detaining an American citizen without charge and with limited legal representation.
Although the government made claims of the man being connected to terrorism they were never able to prove these connections. The New York Times reported that the government planned to prosecute the man in a civilian court for allegedly providing material assistance to terrorist groups, “but the F.B.I. was unable to assemble sufficient courtroom-admissible evidence against him.” Once it was learned the man had family in Saudi Arabia the government made attempts to send him to Saudi Arabia and even back to Syria. The Times reported that there has been discussion around sending the man back to Saudi Arabia as part of a deal with the Saudi government and the Trump administration. The ACLU reported at the time:
“the government won’t say whether it is considering requiring the detainee to relinquish his American citizenship in exchange for his release from U.S. detention. The filing also states that the government does not believe it is legally required to allow him to consult an attorney before renouncing his citizenship.”
The decision would have gone against a 1967 Supreme Court ruling which stated: “In our country the people are sovereign and the Government cannot sever its relationship to the people by taking away their citizenship.”
The Trump administration appealed the court’s decision to release the man. However, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, writing, “We know of no instance — in the history of the United States — in which the government has forcibly transferred an American citizen from one foreign country to another.” The courts statements related to the Trump Administration plan to send the American back to Syria. The Trump admin backed off after a legal challenge by the ACLU.
The ACLU correctly notes that this case highlights the importance of judicial review of law and government action. “The landmark Supreme Court case vindicating the rights of another American citizen, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, established that basic rule, but this one expanded it to mean that the government cannot render citizens to another country against their will — especially to places where they face further detention or risk to personal safety.”
Most important to this writer is the fact that the case also stands as an example of the importance of a free and independent press to call out government and corporate abuse. If the original report was never written by these hard working journalists this man might have been held much longer than a year or sent to a part of the world where he might be subject to violence. As the independent and alternative American media is currently under attack it’s never been more important to stand up and support those who fight to bring truth to light.
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