An American 'Enemy Combatant' Goes Free

4 MINS READSep 24, 2004 | 17:20 GMT

U.S. citizen and "enemy combatant" Yasser Hamdi is to be deported to Saudi Arabia and has agreed to renounce his U.S. citizenship sometime within the next week. Hamdi was born in Baton Rouge, La., but grew up and lived most of his life in Saudi Arabia. He was captured by Northern Alliance militiamen in Afghanistan in November 2001 and turned over to the U.S. military. Hamdi was classified as an "enemy combatant" and held for three months at Guantanamo Bay before his U.S. citizenship was discovered and he ended up in a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Hamdi is not the first "enemy combatant" detained in the war on terrorism to be deported, but the fact that he was an American citizen caught among the Taliban raises questions about his deportation. Californian John Walker Lindh, another U.S. citizen caught with the Taliban, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after reaching a plea deal with prosecutors who threatened to charge him with treason. Hamdi will be deported without ever standing trial.

There is precedent for releasing prisoners in the war on terrorism to their home countries: to date some 146 prisoners have been released from Guantanamo Bay and another 56 handed over to the governments of their home countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, France, Morocco, Britain, Spain, Sweden and Russia. Home governments decide whether to imprison or charge them.

The Department of Defense said the criteria for Hamdi's release were no different from any of the others: There was no more value in keeping them detained and they posed no threat to national security. If that were the case, why didn't the Department of Defense simply release Hamdi outright? Why deport him, force him to renounce his U.S. citizenship and place travel restrictions on him?

His travel restrictions include the United States, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Gaza and Afghanistan, countries that are — with the exception of the United States — known terrorist havens. This suggests that despite his release the U.S. government is not all that sold on his innocence. It could also be that the government hopes to track his movements after he gains his freedom, which might be why Canada is not included on the restricted list.

In conducting the war on terrorism, the U.S. government has created a new tool chest of tactics for pursuing known and suspected Islamist militants. These include detaining suspected individuals for minor legal or immigration offenses in the hopes of obtaining get intelligence — or simply scaring them or others off the militant path. Hamdi was held as an "enemy combatant" and as such the U.S. government had to meet far less stringent criteria for his continued detention and denying him access to U.S. courts. Recent legal decisions, however, augured for his release. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the U.S. government could not hold U.S. citizens, even "enemy combatants" without charge — Lindh was never labeled an "enemy combatant" and always had access to U.S. courts.

Hamdi won access first to a lawyer, then to the courts, putting the Departments of Justice and Defense in a bind: They could release Hamdi back into society or find another way to neutralize him. It appears that the U.S. government chose the latter.

The information that led to Hamdi's detention is classified, which makes prosecution to U.S. legal standards difficult because even if the information can be disclosed, the source often cannot be. STRATFOR believes that the Department of Justice would not detain a U.S. citizen without charge for more than two years without reasonable suspicion that he was a threat to national security. That being said, it seems that whatever evidence there was (at least the portions that could be released) would not have met the burden of proof standard for prosecution. The prosecution also might not have wanted to compromise ongoing counterterrorism investigations by divulging some of the information it had on Hamdi.

This led the U.S. government to deporting Hamdi. The deal was agreed to by Hamdi and his lawyer, suggesting that perhaps Hamdi was genuinely worried about prosecution. A deal also was struck with Lindh. Alternatively, Hamdi could have tired of fighting his legal battle and simply gave up.

Either way the U.S. was able to achieve its goal of neutralizing what it seems to have perceived as a genuine threat to the security of the United States. Jose Padilla, one other "enemy combatant" who is also a U.S. citizen, remains in custody.

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