Uighur Detainees May Be Released to U.S.

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

A federal judge is considering whether to order a group of detainees held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay released into the United States, in what would instantly become a landmark legal decision in the years-long battle over the rights of terrorism suspects there.

The men, a small band of Chinese Muslims who have been held for nearly seven years, are no longer considered enemy combatants by the U.S. government, but they are caught in a well-documented diplomatic bind. Unlike other captives, they cannot be sent to their home country because Beijing considers them terrorists, and they might be tortured. The government released five of the detainees, known as Uighurs (pronounced "WEE-gurz"), to Albania in 2006, but no other country wants to risk offending China by accepting the others.

The Uighurs' attorneys argue that the men have been confined for too long on flimsy evidence and pose no security threat to the United States. The lawyers want them released into this country -- most likely into the Washington area, where there is a Uighur community -- suggesting that authorities could supervise them much as they monitor criminal defendants released pending trial. Later, the government could find the Uighurs another home, the lawyers say.

At a hearing in August, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina spoke at length about the case's complex issues and hinted that he was intrigued by the detainees' proposal.

"I don't understand why that would not be a viable option," he said.

Urbina is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday that will examine whether he has the power to order the release of at least five of the Uighurs. Their attorneys have filed court papers asking Urbina to also consider releasing 12 other Uighurs who remain in custody.

Over the years, more than 500 detainees have left Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an unknown number of whom ultimately were set free. They include about 127 men sent back to Afghanistan, 90 repatriated in Saudi Arabia and 59 returned to Pakistan. Only one detainee, a Saudi, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was moved from Guantanamo Bay to the United States after authorities determined he held U.S. citizenship. He was eventually deported to Saudi Arabia and relinquished his U.S. citizenship.

Scores of detainees are challenging their detentions in federal court after winning a Supreme Court ruling in June that gave them the right to have their cases reviewed by federal judges under the legal doctrine of habeas corpus.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon has been conducting closed-door hearings in the cases of more than 20 of those detainees and intends to hold habeas hearings at a brisk pace, beginning later this month. First in line are six Algerians who were picked up in Bosnia in late 2001. Each detainee is scheduled to have a hearing over a six-day period.

In those cases, judges must weigh government evidence to decide whether the detainees are being held fairly. But in this case, Urbina must decide only what remedy to impose.

That boils down to two options: leave the Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay or order them released into the United States.

Much of the debate in court has focused on whether he can order such a transfer. The Uighurs' attorneys say that recent Supreme Court decisions demand such a move.

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