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ACLU Says U.S. Government Is Denying Basic Rights To Citizen Captured In Syria


The U.S. government has been holding an American citizen in Iraq for four months now without charge. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging his detention in federal court. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is following the story, and he's with me now. Hey.


MCEVERS: So for those of us who have not been following this story very closely, just remind us. What is this case all about?

LUCAS: Well, I can tell you what it's all about, but I can't tell you who it is about because we don't know the American citizen's name. The government hasn't released it. It hasn't released any details about him. That's why he's known as John Doe. But here's what we do know at this point. The man surrendered to U.S. allies in Syria in September. He was handed over to the U.S. military, and the military has held him in Iraq since then as an enemy combatant. He's suspected of having been a member of the Islamic State.

Now, word seeped out around the time that he was picked up that he was in U.S. custody. And according to reports, he is a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen. Now, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent has met with him a couple of times, but for months, that was it. The government hasn't charged him. It wasn't allowing him access to a lawyer or judge. The ACLU has taken up the case. Here's Jonathan Hafetz. He's one of the attorneys working the case.

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JONATHAN HAFETZ: This case raises fundamental questions about the government's ability to detain American citizens and the rights of American citizens to ensure the basic protections of the Constitution.

MCEVERS: OK, so the ACLU's taken up the case, and I understand they brought it to federal court in October. So what's the status of the case now?

LUCAS: Well, the government has said from the very beginning that it thinks the case should be dismissed. Initially it said the ACLU didn't have the legal standing to represent the man because it didn't know him, and it didn't have the man's consent. At the same time, the government hadn't released the man's name, and it wasn't granting access to him to get his consent.

In late-December, the judge handling the case ordered the government to give the ACLU access to talk to him. That finally happened last week. The ACLU spoke with him via a video link from the Pentagon. And he told them that he wants to challenge his detention and that he wants the ACLU to represent him. The ACLU has asked the judge for an injunction to prevent the government from transferring him to another country such as Saudi Arabia before he gets his day in court.

The government responded on Monday. It says that it's figuring out what to do with him. It acknowledges that transferring him to another country is an option under consideration, and it asks for another six weeks to respond to the merits of the case.

MCEVERS: Six weeks - I mean, why is it taking the government so long to figure out what to do here?

LUCAS: That's a great question.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

LUCAS: Legal experts I've spoken with say that the government has had ample time to figure this out. The government says it needs the time because the detainee is halfway around the world. Evidence is scattered across intelligence and investigative agencies, and there are classification issues.

But there's another possibility here, and that's that the government reportedly doesn't have enough evidence to charge him with terrorism but they don't want to release him. That's why transferring him may be on the table. It would also allow the government to sidestep a number of other legal issues that it's anxious to avoid. And also, if he's not in U.S. custody or being held at the behest of the U.S. government, then it's no longer an issue, and the lawsuit is likely moot.

MCEVERS: Enemy combatant, detainee transfers - I mean, this must to a lot of people sound like things we heard during the George W. Bush administration, yeah?

LUCAS: Absolutely, absolutely. And there're certainly aspects of this that hearken back to that period. We haven't talked about enemy combatants for a long time. And yes, this case raises questions about how the Trump administration is going to handle terrorism suspects picked up overseas, but it also raises questions about whether the government's arguments are suggesting that it could do the same thing with an American citizen in the U.S. Here's Stephen Vladeck. He's a law professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

STEPHEN VLADECK: I think that's why this case is so scary. Whatever you think of U.S. citizens who are in Syria perhaps spying on behalf of ISIS, so far there's no reason why the precedent the government has set over the last three and a half months couldn't be applied to someone much, much closer to home.

LUCAS: So that's why legal experts say this case is important, and that's why they're keeping such close tabs on it.

MCEVERS: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas, thanks.

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

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.