By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008 10:23 PM
A federal appeals court Monday blocked the release of 17 Chinese Muslims into the United States from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until it can hear further legal arguments in the case.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit stayed a federal judge's order releasing the men, and it ordered oral arguments in the government's appeal, to be heard Nov. 24.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered the government Oct. 7 to release the men, all Uighurs, who have been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years. The same panel temporarily stayed Urbina's order a day later.
The government has been trying to find new homes for the Uighurs for years. It no longer considers them enemy combatants and provided no evidence in court that they posed a security risk. The men cannot be returned to their homeland because they face the prospect of being tortured and killed. China considers the men terrorists.
Judges A. Raymond Randolph and Karen L. Henderson sided with the government and issued the order without comment; Judge Judith W. Rogers dissented, writing that the Bush administration's legal theories were flawed. The government has argued it can detain the Uighurs without cause until it locates a new home for them.
Justice Department lawyers have argued that only the president or Congress has the legal authority to order the Uighurs' release into the United States. They have also said that immigration laws would preclude them from entering the country because they received weapons training at a camp operated by a designated terror organization.
Rogers rejected those arguments, writing that courts have the power to order the release under habeas corpus, a centuries-old legal doctrine that allows prisoners or detainees to challenge their confinement in federal court. The judge also rejected the argument that immigration laws would bar the Uighurs' entry, writing that such an interpretation would "rob" the men's rights of meaning.
Even if the men had received weapons training, she wrote, that "cannot alone show they are dangerous, unless millions of United States resident citizens who have received fire arms training are deemed to be dangerous as well."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, "We're pleased the court has granted our motion for a stay pending the appeal, and we look forward to presenting our arguments before the Court of Appeals."
P. Sabin Willett, who represents the Uighurs, said he was disappointed by the order, and he accused the government of running out the clock until Bush leaves office in January.
Urbina ordered the men released to live with Uighur families in the Washington area.
"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause, the government's continued detention of the [detainees] is unlawful," Urbina said from the bench.