A Russian captured fighting with insurgents in Afghanistan and held for years at a detention facility near Bagram air base will be flown to the United States to be prosecuted in federal court, according to U.S. officials.
The move marks the first time a foreign combatant captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan and held by the U.S military at Bagram will be transferred to the United States for trial, a decision the Obama administration has weighed for months. With combat operations winding down, the administration’s authority to continue to hold the man was in question, and U.S. officials said Russia had little interest in getting him back.
The detainee, known by the nom de guerre Irek Hamidullan, is suspected of leading several insurgent attacks in 2009 in which U.S. troops were wounded or killed. He was captured that year after being wounded in a firefight.
Congress was recently notified that Hamidullan would be transferred to the United States, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the decision to prosecute him had not been released publicly.
Congress has barred the transfer to the United States for prosecution or continued detention of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but has not enacted a similar law preventing the movement of those held in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Justice Department’s National Security Division declined to comment. It is not clear what terrorism charges Hamidullan will face.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement that he believes the Obama administration “is trying to undercut the military commission process,” by sending all terrorism suspects captured overseas to federal court, but that he accepted the decision on how to handle Hamidullan.
“I would have preferred he be tried before a military commission, but I respect the decision to bring him to trial in an Article III court,” Graham said. “He has been held for a sufficient period of time as an enemy combatant and I believe we have gained valuable intelligence during this period.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan declined in a statement to discuss specifics of the transfer, but said “the President’s national security team examined this matter and unanimously agreed that prosecution of this detainee in federal court was the best disposition option in this case.”
Hamidullan, also a veteran of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, is expected to be tried in the Eastern District of Virginia, U.S. officials said.
With Hamidullan’s expected transfer, Pentagon officials believe they will be on track to empty the Parwan detention center near Bagram of non-Afghan detainees before the end of the year. The United States continued to hold a number of third-country nationals at the facility after it turned over control of all Afghan prisoners to the authorities in Kabul.
As of last month, there were 13 third-country nationals being held at Parwan, including Hamidullan, who is thought to be in his mid-50s. Officials have not released his Russian name.
Others held at the facility were also being considered for prosecution in the United States, including a group of men known as the Three Amigos with suspected ties to al-Qaeda, former and current U.S. officials said.
The Obama administration had considered putting Hamidullan on trial in a military commission, possibly in South Carolina, but ultimately chose a federal criminal trial. U.S. officials said hundreds of terrorists have been prosecuted successfully in federal court, including numerous al-Qaeda operatives.
Former and current U.S. officials said they were anxious to avoid a repeat of a case involving a Hezbollah operative named Ali Musa Daqduq, who was held by the U.S. military in Iraq.
Daqduq was captured in 2007 and was suspected of involvement in an attack in southern Iraq that killed a U.S. soldier and the kidnapping of four other servicemen who were later found dead. He was released by the Iraqi authorities after the U.S. withdrawal.
The decision not to prosecute Daqduq angered FBI officials who believed the administration was unwilling to bring him to the United States for trial because of congressional opposition to transferring detainees here for trials in civilian court.
U.S. officials have previously said Hamidullan was thought to have links to one or more insurgent groups and ties to Islamist insurgents in Chechnya, a part of the Russian Federation where militants have fought two unsuccessful wars for independence.
Those officials said Hamidullan remains committed to violent jihad and has sworn that he will return to the battlefield if he is released from prison.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.