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Chinese Muslims stay stranded at Guantánamo

Federal appeals court reverses an order that the 17 men be released into the US.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2009


Seventeen Chinese Muslims being held at the Guantánamo prison camp for suspected terrorists have lost a bid to live temporarily in the United States pending their resettlement in a third country.

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In a much-anticipated ruling, a federal appeals court in Washington has reversed a judge's order that the 17 members of the Uighur ethnic group be brought to the US to stay until the new Obama administration is able to find a country willing to accept them.

The decision, announced Wednesday in Washington, leaves the men in a Catch-22. Although a judge ordered them released months ago, they remain detainees at Guantánamo.

The men have been held at the detention camp for nearly seven years despite an apparent lack of evidence of involvement in terrorism. They were sold to the US military by bounty hunters, and a federal judge in Washington concluded they are not dangerous.

In its ruling Wednesday, the appeals court said that US District Judge Ricardo Urbina exceeded his authority when he ordered the government to bring the Uighurs to the US.

"What law authorized the district court to order the government to bring petitioners to the United States and release them here," asked Judge Arthur Randolph, writing for the court.

It is up to Congress and the executive branch to determine immigration policy, not the courts, Judge Randolph said.

The Uighurs are currently housed in the least restrictive conditions at Guantánamo. According to government briefs filed in the case, they are living in a barracks-style section of the detention camp with communal living and access to an "outdoor recreation space" and picnic area. They sleep in an air-conditioned bunk house" and can use a room with a television with VCR and DVD players. They also have access to shower facilities and library materials. But they are not free to leave the camp.

Government lawyers say the Uighurs are no longer being treated as enemy combatants.

The key question faced by Judge Urbina was what remedy is available once a judge orders a Guantánamo detainee to be released.

"An undercurrent of petitioners' arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at hands of the United States," Randolph wrote. "But such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches."

He added, "We do not know whether all petitioners or any of them would qualify for entry or admission under the immigration laws. We do know that there is insufficient evidence to classify them as enemy combatants.... But that hardly qualifies petitioners for admission [as legal residents of the US]. Nor does their detention at Guantánamo for many years entitle them to enter the United States."