A federal court on Monday ordered the release of Adham Hassoun, a man held in U.S custody for nearly two decades and who the Trump administration has attempted to indefinitely detain since 2017 using a never-before-used section of the PATRIOT Act.
"The government in this case has shown that it will ignore facts, conceal contradictory evidence, repeat obvious lies, and mislead the courts in order to avoid judicial checks on its asserted detention powers under the PATRIOT Act," said Jonathan Manes, attorney at the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. "Nobody is above the law, not least government officials who seek to jail a man for life without charge or trial and, it turns out, without any evidence," he said.
In 2017, Hassoun, a Palestinian born in Lebanon who moved to the U.S. in 1989, completed a 15-year sentence for charges of providing material support to terrorist activities—a sentence that came after he faced years of FBI surveillance and was based on questionable allegations. The government tried to continue his detention, arguing he was a threat to national security even after his original sentence had been served.
ACLU senior staff attorney Jonathan Hafetz explained the legal background in February:
In December, the district court rejected one of the government's two justifications for detaining Adham. The government argued that, under a rarely-used administrative regulation, it could unilaterally declare Adham a danger to national security and deny him the basic rudiments of due process. The government claimed Adham had no chance to contest the accusations against him before a judge, and said he instead had to prove his innocence to the very people trying to keep him imprisoned. In its ruling, the court rightfully recognized that depriving a person of liberty through such a flimsy and one-sided process raises serious constitutional problems, and declared the regulation "a legal nullity."
The court also rejected the government's second argument — that it could detain Adham under a never-before used provision of the USA Patriot Act without first affording him a judicial hearing. Normally, even when individuals are ordered removed under immigration laws, the government can't continue detaining them unless it will actually be able to remove them in the foreseeable future. A judge has already ruled that Adham's removal isn’t foreseeable because there is no country he can be sent to, but instead of releasing him — as our Constitution and values require — the government has opted to keep him locked up based on an assertion that he's dangerous. According to the government, the Patriot Act allows the executive branch to keep a supposedly "dangerous" person behind bars forever, no matter how flimsy the evidence against him, with no significant review by a judge.
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U.S. District District Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford didn't buy the government's argument.
"Distilled to its core, Respondent's position is that he should be able to detain Petitioner indefinitely based on the executive branch's say-so, and that decision is insulated from any meaningful review by the judiciary," wrote Wolford. "The record in this case demonstrates firsthand the danger of adopting Respondent's position. Respondent's position cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny."
Wolford stayed Hassoun's release until noon Thursday "to allow Respondent an opportunity to seek emergency relief from an appellate court if he so chooses."
The challenge to the government on behalf of Hassoun was brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center.
"All I've wanted, like everyone else, is to be free and with my family again," Hassoun said in a statement. "But the government at every turn tried to deny me the opportunity to prove my innocence. I'm grateful to the court for upholding the freedoms and constitutional guarantees that made me fall in love with this country 30 years ago."
According to Hafetz, "This case shows that the government should never have the power to hold people without charge or a fair hearing, because if given that power, it is sure to abuse it."