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Federal Judge Blocks U.S. From Transferring Citizen Held In Iraq To Another Country

A federal judge has blocked the U.S. government from transferring to another country an American citizen who has been held without charge by the U.S. military in Iraq for more than seven months.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan issued the preliminary injunction Thursday evening, minutes before an 8 p.m. deadline to stop the transfer. The government had provided 72-hour notice, as required by the court, earlier this week that it planned to send the man, whose name has not been made public, to a third country.

The detainee is a dual U.S.-Saudi citizen who surrendered in September of last year to a Syrian militia backed by the United States. The militia handed him off to the American military, which has held him as an enemy combatant at a U.S. military facility in Iraq since then.

The government suspects the man of being a member of the Islamic State.

In court papers, the government says that the man was carrying more than $4,000 when he was taken into custody, as well as a GPS device and two thumb drives that held more than 10,000 photos, including ones depicting military-style handbooks and files on how to make roadside bombs.

The government also says the U.S. military obtained a thumb drive found by allies in Syria that contained information on foreign fighters in ISIS's ranks. That data included a document for a man who registered as a fighter with the terrorist group in July 2014. That individual's personal details match the detainee's, according to the government.

But the government has struggled to gather evidence that would be admissible in court and allow prosecutors to charge the man. Reluctant to release him, the U.S. has instead sought to transfer him to a third country, possibly Saudi Arabia.

In a court filing earlier this week, a senior State Department official said the U.S. had negotiated an agreement to hand over the man to a "receiving country." The country is a U.S. ally but its name was redacted.

The official argued that blocking the transfer "could cause harm to our ongoing bilateral cooperation, including on future detainee transfers."

But the detainee has made clear through his lawyers that he does not want to be transferred.

At a court hearing Thursday, attorney Jonathan Hafetz from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the man, urged the judge to block the transfer, saying transferring the detainee against his will to another country would violate his constitutional right to challenge his detention.

"When it comes to the rights of a citizen, it's not 'let's make a deal,'" he said.

In her ruling late Thursday, Judge Chutkan did not immediately provide the reasoning for her decision. But at the morning hearing, she said she's mindful of the government's concern about the detainee, referred to as John Doe, saying the concern is "a real one, and not one I take lightly."

But, she added, "as serious as that may be, John Doe is a citizen."

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Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.