AFEDERAL APPEALS court intervened yesterday to block one judge's precipitous decision to order the release of 17 Chinese Uighurs held for years at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Issuing the emergency stay was the right thing to do, but not because the Uighurs don't deserve their freedom.
There is no question that these men should have been freed long ago. As the U.S. government has acknowledged, the Uighurs were not enemy combatants intent on doing harm to the United States or its interests. The focus of their enmity was their home country of China, which has a long and despicable history of oppressing Uighurs -- though that does not justify the terrorism some militants have embraced. As early as 2003, U.S. military personnel concluded that the Uighurs held at Guantanamo were attractive candidates for release, yet they have languished at the camp because they could not be returned to China for fear of retribution. Albania accepted five Uighurs in 2006, but no other country has followed suit, in part because of Chinese threats of retaliation. We urged President Bush to grant asylum to some of these men; had he done so, he could have avoided this judicial intervention.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina had ordered all 17 Uighur detainees to be flown from Guantanamo and brought to his courtroom in Washington on Friday. Judge Urbina said he would discuss logistics for their release into the Washington area, home to a sizable Uighur community, at that time. Judge Urbina is understandably frustrated, as we have been, at the continued detention of the Uighurs. But he should not have acted as he did. The judge's conclusion that he had the power to release the men into this country is one that no other court has reached and that no higher court, including the Supreme Court, has evaluated.
Everyone involved in the matter agrees that the United States has no rational justification for continuing to hold the Uighurs. Where there is stark disagreement is over whether a federal judge has the legal authority to order their release into the United States. Judge Urbina may ultimately be proved right, but his decision is legally untested and has the potential to affect future administrations, with unforeseen consequences. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was correct to put Judge Urbina's decision on hold, as the Justice Department had asked.
Now the appeals court should evaluate the decision carefully but move as quickly as possible to decide its merits. In the meantime, the Bush administration must act with urgency to find permanent homes for these men -- and the president must make sure that at least some of those homes are in this country.