In a rebuke to the Bush administration's policy on terrorist detainees, a US federal court has ordered the release of 17 Chinese Muslims held for several years without trial in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said Tuesday that the men must appear in court on Friday and that they would subsequently be resettled in the United States. The Justice Department said it would seek an emergency stay on the ruling.
The detainees are all members of the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) minority in western China and were arrested after the US invasion of Afghanistan. They were cleared by the US military for release in 2004, but weren't sent back to China due to fears of persecution, and no other country has agreed to accept them.
Lawyers for the men expressed relief and said it was a landmark ruling as it involved the release of Guantánamo detainees in the US, Reuters reports. The 17 detainees had fled China and had been living in a camp in Afghanistan, then fled into Pakistan after the US bombing campaign began in October 2001.
In 2006, five other Chinese Muslims were sent to Albania to seek asylum. China has tried to suppress an alleged Uighur separatist movement that it blames for violent attacks on security personnel in its far west. That has put a stop to US efforts to repatriate Uighurs held in Guantánamo, a US military facility.
The New York Times reports that the ruling was the first of its kind in nearly seven years of legal battles over the administration's broad definition of its wartime powers. Federal courts and the Supreme Court have previously examined the legality of detention policies at Guantánamo. Tuesday's hearing was in response to a habeas corpus lawsuit filed on behalf of the 17 men.
"I think the moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for detention," Judge Urbina said.
Saying the men had never fought the United States and were not a security threat, he tersely rejected Bush administration claims that he lacked the power to order the men set free in the United States and government requests that he stay his order to permit an immediate appeal....
Judge Urbina, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, underscored the significance of his ruling with repeated references to the constitutional separation of powers and the judiciary's role.
He rejected Justice Department arguments as assertions of executive power to detain people indefinitely without court review. He said that "is not in keeping with our system of government."
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates at Guantánamo can seek release in federal court. That ruling applies to an estimated 225 prisoners still held at the facility, down from more than 770 at its peak.
"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement. "The government does not believe that it is appropriate to have these foreign nationals removed from government custody and released into the United States."
Human rights groups applauded Tuesday's ruling, reports Inter Press Services. But they say much depends on the government's response to the proposed release of the detainees, as past rulings by federal courts have been ignored by the Bush administration. Rights groups say the government should charge and try detainees or release them.
The court scheduled a hearing next week with exiled Uighurs who have offered rooms for the detainees, The Washington Post reports. Some are likely to be released into the care of families in and around the capital, where sizable communities have settled since the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and increased political tensions in western China. Uighur exiles in Washington are often college educated and keep a keen eye on political developments at home.
According to one of the detainees' attorneys, the presence of a local community willing to receive the detainees was key in the judge's decision that they be released on U.S. soil.
"The local Uighur presence is critical," said Susan Baker Manning, an attorney for the detainees. "These men are halfway around the world from their home and their families. They've been held in grinding isolation, many of them in solitary confinement for about a year and half. They are going to need some help."
The Los Angeles Times reports that rights lawyers describe the Uighurs as victims of wrongful imprisonment, as they fled to Afghanistan to escape political repression in China. When they fled to Pakistan, locals turned them over to US troops in return for $5,000 bounties.
The U.S. military alleged that the Uighurs had received military training, and they were suspected of ties to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, which the State Department had designated a terrorist group.
But the Uighurs strongly denied any ties to the Taliban, Al Qaeda or other enemies of the United States; their only enemy, they said, was the government of China. They said they had initially welcomed being in U.S. custody, hoping they would be safe and treated humanely.
The Times of London cites a letter written by one of the detainees, Abdulghappar Turkistani, that a US lawyer released earlier this year. He wrote that the men, who had been ruled in 2004 as no longer posing a threat to the US, were held in windowless cells for up to 22 hours a day.
He said: "We fail to know why we are still in jail here. Being forbidden from the natural sunlight, natural air, being surrounded with a metal box all around is not suitable for a human being."