Video: Holder heads to Gitmo

updated 2/18/2009 7:52:41 PM ET 2009-02-19T00:52:41

A U.S. appeals court reversed a ruling Wednesday that would have transferred 17 Guantanamo Bay detainees, none of whom are labeled enemy combatants, to the United States.

The ruling casts further uncertainty on the fate of the Turkic Muslims from western China. Because there is no evidence they plotted or fought against the United States, the government has no authority to hold them at Guantanamo Bay. But figuring out what to do with the men has been a diplomatic problem for years.

The military says the men have ties to a militant group that demands separation from China. The United States will not release the Uighurs to their home for fear they will be tortured.

Earlier this month, Beijing warned other countries not to accept the men, setting up a diplomatic roadblock in President Barack Obama's plan to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in October that, since they are not enemy combatants, the Uighurs must be released to the United States. But the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that ruling.

Only the executive branch, not the courts, can make decisions about immigration, the appeals court said. That fact does not change, the court said, simply because the United States has held the men for years without charge.

"Such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote.

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