Settlement Comes After Government’s ‘Attempts to Circumvent Rule of Law Blocked Each and Every Time’

October 29, 2018

Note: This release was updated on October 29, 2018 at noon ET to confirm John Doe's release.

NEW YORK — John Doe, an American citizen unlawfully detained by the Trump administration in Iraq for over a year, is now a free man. Under a confidential settlement agreement, the U.S. government has released him in an unnamed country.

The American Civil Liberties Union has represented John Doe in a habeas challenge to his unlawful detention by the U.S. military in Iraq since September 2017. His identity has been protected by a court order for the security of him and his family.

The settlement agreement comes after weeks of negotiations that began after the ACLU filed an emergency request to block the government’s plan to send him to war-torn Syria, where his life would be in danger.

“My case has shown the worst and the best of my country. When I fled violence in Syria, I never imagined that my country would deny me access to a lawyer for nearly four months, and imprison me without charge in solitary confinement for over a year,” the American citizen, referred to as John Doe in court filings, has told his lawyers.  “No one, no matter what they are suspected of, should be treated the way my government treated me. Once I got the chance to stand up for my rights, the Constitution and the courts protected me.”

Doe has requested time and privacy to rebuild his life. He also wishes to remain anonymous for the same reason.

“Our client has fought long and hard for his rights,” said Jonathan Hafetz, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Trump administration thought it could trample over the rights of this American citizen. This case shows the enduring importance of the courts in safeguarding the rights of Americans against government overreach.”

John Doe had been fleeing violence in Syria when he was detained by Kurdish forces and handed over to the U.S. military. The military continued to detain him in secret without charge and, for nearly four months, without access to an attorney. 

Reports of the Trump administration secretly detaining an American citizen first appeared in The Daily Beast.

“Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the freedom of the press,” said Hafetz. “This case underscores the role — now more than ever — the First Amendment serves as a vital check against government abuse of power.”

The government claimed that it could detain the citizen under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The ACLU maintained that the 2001 AUMF only authorized the military to capture and detain people who were part of or supported al-Qaida and the Taliban and engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its allies. It argued that the 2001 AUMF cannot be used to cover ISIS because it did not exist in 2001 and is openly at war with al-Qaida. 

Hafetz added, “From efforts to deny our client access to a lawyer to repeated plans to forcibly transfer him, the government did all it could to avoid a court deciding whether the American citizen’s detention was in fact lawful. Those attempts to circumvent his rights and the rule of law were blocked each and every time, showing that the Constitution must ultimately prevail.”

Below is a timeline of developments to date:

  • September 14, 2017: The Daily Beast reports the military has secretly detained a U.S. citizen without charge. The Pentagon subsequently confirms the report.
  • September 29, 2017: The ACLU sends a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging them to comply with the Constitution and ensure that the legal rights of the U.S. citizen are respected. The government does not respond to the letter.
  • October 2, 2017: The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Pentagon say that Red Cross representatives had visited the man on September 29 to ensure that his treatment accorded with the Geneva Conventions, but no further information was released.
  • October 5, 2017: The ACLU files a habeas corpus petition on behalf of the U.S. citizen, demanding that the Trump administration justify its detention of the American without charge or access to a court, and asking to be put in secure contact with him to offer legal assistance. 
  • November 30, 2017: In a hearing on the ACLU’s habeas challenge, a federal district court asks a Justice Department attorney whether the man had been advised of his right to an attorney and whether he had asserted that right. When the government attorney said she could not answer, the court orders the government to provide the answers by 5 p.m. the same day. The government later tells the court that the U.S. citizen has asked for an attorney.
  • December 20, 2017: The New York Times reports that government officials were weighing sending John Doe to Saudi Arabia.
  • December 23, 2017: The federal court rejects the government’s efforts to dismiss the case and orders the government to provide the ACLU with unmonitored access to the citizen. The court also orders the government to refrain from transferring the American to another country until the ACLU gains access to him and informs the court of his wishes. In its ruling, the court calls the government’s argument that the ACLU’s suit should be dismissed “disingenuous at best.”
  • January 3, 2018: ACLU attorneys speak with the American citizen via a court-ordered videoconference, during which the citizen tells the ACLU he wants to challenge his detention in court and have the ACLU represent him.
  • January 5, 2018: The ACLU informs the court of the citizen’s wishes and asks that the government be ordered to justify his detention. The ACLU also asks the court to prohibit the government from transferring the citizen until the court decides the challenge to his detention.
  • January 23, 2018: The district court rules that the government must give the ACLU 72 hours’ notice before transferring the American to any country to allow for a legal challenge to the transfer.
  • February 2, 2018: The government appeals the district court’s January 23 order requiring 72 hours’ notice before transfer to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. 
  • February 9, 2018: In the district court, the ACLU files a brief arguing that the Trump administration’s detention of the American as an “enemy combatant” for allegedly being an ISIS fighter is not lawful, and that he should either be charged or released.
  • April 5, 2018: In the D.C. Circuit, both parties appear for oral argument on the government’s appeal of the district court’s January 23 order.
  • April 16, 2018: In the district court, the Trump administration files a notice that in 72 hours it intends to transfer the American citizen into the custody of a designated country.
  • April 19, 2018: The district court judge issues a preliminary injunction blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to hand Doe over to the custody of the designated country. The order comes following a hearing on the issue the same day.
  • April 20, 2018: The government appeals the district court’s order barring the transfer of Doe to the designated country to the D.C. Circuit.
  • April 27, 2018: In the D.C. Circuit, both parties appear for oral argument on the government’s appeal of the district court’s April 19 order.
  • May 7, 2018: The D.C. Circuit issues an opinion upholding the district court’s January 23 order requiring 72-hours’ advance notice before transferring the American to a foreign country and upholding the district court’s April 19 order preventing the Trump administration from transferring Doe to the designated country.
  • May 15, 2018: The district court schedules a hearing for June 20 to determine the legality of Doe’s military detention.
  • June 6, 2018: The Trump administration tells the district court that it plans to send the American to war-torn Syria. 
  • June 7, 2018: The ACLU files an emergency request asking the district court to halt the government’s plan to send the citizen to Syria, arguing that it would amount to a “death sentence.”
  • June 8, 2018: Both parties appear before the district court for argument on Doe’s emergency request. The government agrees not to send him to Syria pending resolution of his emergency motion.
  • July 19, 2018: Both parties file a joint status report to inform the court that they are engaged in settlement negotiations.
  • October 29, 2018: The ACLU announces that, per a confidential settlement agreement, the American citizen has been released and is a free man.

Additional information about the case can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/cases/doe-v-mattis-challenge-detention-american-us-....

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