A federal judge ordered the Bush administration Tuesday to immediately free 17 Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo Bay into the United States, rebuking the government in a landmark decision that could set the stage for the release of dozens other prisoners in Cuba.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington said it would be wrong for the government to continue holding the detainees, known as Uighurs (WEE'-gurz), who have been jailed for nearly seven years, since they are no longer considered enemy combatants. Over the objections of government lawyers who called them a security risk, Urbina ordered their release by Friday.
"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina said in a ruling that brought cheers and applause from a standing-room only courtroom filled with dozens of Uighurs and human rights activists.
He also ordered a hearing for next week to decide where the Uighurs should be permanently settled. Until then, members of the Uighur community in the D.C. area have offered to take them in and will help care for them.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the government plans to ask a federal appeals court to step in while attorneys file an appeal. He said the detainees had admitted receiving weapons training in Afghanistan and were a national security risk.
"The district court's ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11, who may also seek release into our country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Gitmo's grim history
At issue is the scope of a federal judge's power to order the release of a Guantanamo prisoner, who was unlawfully detained by the U.S. but who cannot be sent back to his homeland. The Uighurs, who are Turkic-speaking Muslims in western China, have been cleared for release from Guantanamo since 2004 and ordinarily they would be sent home.
But the Uighurs cannot be sent back to China where they are considered terrorists and could be tortured, and the Bush administration says no country is willing to accept them. Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but has since balked on taking others due partly to fears of repercussions with China.
Urbina's decision also has broader implications for the future of the Guantanamo prison, which the Bush administration has said it would like to shut down after "working with other countries to take people back under the right circumstances." A federal judge is set later this month to hold hearings on other Guantanamo prisoners challenging their detention as so-called enemy combatants.
About 20 percent of about 250 detainees who remain at the military prison fear torture or persecution if they return to their home countries, according to the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, raising similar questions as to where they should go if other countries refuse to take them. The U.S. has long maintained they should stay at Guantanamo.
"How many times does the Bush administration need to be told that detainees are entitled to essential rights? All the remaining detainees in Guantanamo Bay must be either charged and tried or released immediately," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Scope of power
On Tuesday, the Bush administration argued a federal judge did not have the power to order the release of a foreign-born detainee into the U.S., saying it would undercut immigration laws that dictate how foreigners are brought into the country. Until a country accepts the Uighurs, they would stay in special housing that includes TVs, air-conditioning and recreational activities such as soccer, tennis and volleyball, government attorneys said.
Justice Department attorney John C. O'Quinn also said federal judges should defer to the executive branch, who he said would be in a better position in light of the delicate relations with China. In Beijing Tuesday, before Urbina's ruling, the government demanded that all Uighurs held at Guantanamo be repatriated to China.
"The court should be circumspect because of the potential for interference with foreign relations," O'Quinn said.
Sabin Willett, an attorney for the Uighurs, countered: "I've never heard anyone argue our relations with other nations are a basis for holding someone."
The Uighurs have been at Guantanamo Bay, a naval prison in Cuba, since the U.S. military took custody of them in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said before Tuesday's court hearing that the Uighurs are suspected of being members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization.
"China has urged the U.S. to repatriate these Chinese terrorist suspects to China on many occasions. We hope the U.S. will take our position seriously and repatriate these persons to China sooner rather than later," he said.
A spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Urbina's order.
Uighurs are from Xinjiang — an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations — and say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China has long said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang.
Rebia Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, called the decision a victory for oppressed Uighurs in China.
"This is our destiny. This our people's win. This concerns our freedom. China accuses us of being terrorists, but we are not," she said through a translator as other Uighurs in the courtroom cried for joy.