By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008
A federal appeals court last night temporarily blocked a judge's order that the government must release 17 Chinese Muslims held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the United States.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued the "administrative stay" at the request of the Justice Department.
In a one-page order, the appellate judges said they issued the stay to give them "sufficient opportunity" to consider the government's request for a lengthier delay while it appeals the ruling by U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina.
On Tuesday, Urbina ruled that the government could no longer detain the men in Cuba because it offered no proof they were enemy combatants or security risks. He ordered the government to deliver the men, all known as Uighurs, to his courtroom by 10 a.m. tomorrow to be transferred into the custody of Uighur families in the Washington area.
The men have been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years but are no longer deemed to be enemy combatants.
The Justice Department issued a statement saying it was "pleased" by the decision. Lawyers for the detainees said they were disappointed.
"It's obviously a letdown," said Emi MacLean, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been working to free the Uighurs. "The release of these men is long overdue."
In court papers, the government has alleged that the men all received weapons training at camps affiliated with the Taliban. The men were turned over to U.S. authorities after being driven from their camps by U.S. airstrikes in 2001.
Human rights advocates, the detainees' lawyers and members of Congress from both parties have said the Uighurs are not enemies of the United States and should be released into the country. An appeals court determined in June that one of the men must be released, transferred or given a new military hearing because the evidence against him was so weak.
"It is undisputed that he is not a member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and that he has never participated in any hostile action against the United States or its allies," the court found. Evidence against the other Uighurs is very similar, and the government has decided to no longer treat any of the Uighurs as enemy combatants.
The Uighurs are caught up in a well-documented diplomatic bind because the United States can't return them to China, where they might be tortured. Beijing considers the Uighurs, advocates of an independent homeland, to be terrorists. U.S. officials have said they have been working to find a third country to accept the Uighurs. They sent five Uighurs to Albania in 2006, but other countries have refused to accept them because they don't want to offend China.
Over the years, the U.S. government has returned hundreds of other detainees to their native countries.
On Tuesday, Urbina ruled that he was compelled to release the men because the government did not produce any evidence to support their confinement. He also said their detention appeared to be open-ended.
"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause, the government's continued detention of the [detainees] is unlawful," Urbina said.
The Justice Department moved quickly to appeal the ruling. The department's lawyers have argued Urbina did not have the authority to order the Uighurs' release. The only person with such power is the president, they have said.
Also, they argued, the men would be blocked from entry because they trained at camps sponsored by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a group that the Bush administration designated a terrorist organization after the men were detained, the lawyers have argued.
Lawyers for the Uighurs filed court papers yesterday urging the judges to reject the government's request.
They called the Uighurs "stateless refugees."