WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has agreed to release a U.S. citizen held as an enemy combatant for more than two years, clearing the way for him to return to Saudi Arabia (search), officials said Wednesday.
Under terms of the agreement, Yaser Esam Hamdi (search) must renounce his American citizenship but will not face any criminal charges.
Hamdi, born in Baton Rouge, La., and raised in Saudi Arabia, will be flown by the Defense Department to Saudi Arabia as soon as transportation can be arranged. He was being held in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Hamdi holds Saudi citizenship.
"I am gratified at the prospect that Mr. Hamdi's return to Saudi Arabia and his family is now only days away," Hamdi's lawyer, federal public defender Frank Dunham Jr., said in a statement.
The agreement negotiated by Dunham and the Justice Department stipulates that Hamdi is forbidden from traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the United States.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the restrictions are meant to ensure Hamdi cannot again take up arms against the United States or its allies. Corallo said Hamdi's intelligence value had been exhausted, leading to the decision to release him.
"As we have repeatedly stated, the United States has no interest in detaining enemy combatants beyond the point that they pose a threat to the U.S. and our allies," Corallo said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned Wednesday how the Justice Department could "release and send to Saudi Arabia someone they said was so dangerous that he had to be held for years in a military stockade and could not be allowed to consult with a lawyer."
Shane Kadidal, an attorney for the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights that has fought for detainee rights, said the government held Hamdi not because of an alleged crime but "rather on suspicion that he might know something, anything, useful to the government."
"The government was wrong at every stage about the legality of his detention," Kadidal said. "It's not much of a reach to think they were probably wrong about whether he had useful intelligence as well."
Saudi officials have said Hamdi faces no criminal charges in the kingdom.
Hamdi was captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan where he was fighting alongside the Taliban in late 2001. He was held for three months at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being transferred to a Navy brig in the United States when officials realized he was a U.S. citizen.
He had contested his status as an enemy combatant, and the Supreme Court ruled in June that Hamdi and others like him could not be held indefinitely without seeing a lawyer and getting a chance to contest their incarceration in court. That led to the negotiations for his release.
Hamdi's agreement with the government is expected to be filed by Monday in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., officials said.
The disposition of the Hamdi case leaves the Bush administration holding one U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant in the war on terror: former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla (search). Padilla is suspected of plotting with other Al Qaeda (search) operatives to launch attacks inside the United States, including a plan to fill apartments in several cities with natural gas and detonate them.