Saturday, June 6, 2009
THERE IS STILL a small window of opportunity for President Obama to do right by 17 men who have spent years behind bars even though they should never have been imprisoned. If the president fails to take action, then the courts must.
These men, ethnic Chinese Muslims known as Uighurs, were brought in 2002 to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and held as enemy combatants. A short time later, military officials raised doubts about whether these men were enemies of the state; a federal appeals court believed to be the first to review the classified information justifying detention unanimously concluded that the government lacked any credible evidence against one of the men. The Bush administration ultimately announced that none of the Uighurs had been properly classified or held as an enemy combatant.
That should have been enough for these detainees to regain their freedom, except that the United States could not return them to their homeland for fear that they would be persecuted there. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, tried unsuccessfully to find countries to take the men. That challenge was made exponentially more difficult recently by the demagoguery of U.S. lawmakers of both parties who made unsubstantiated claims that these detainees were dangerous terrorists. These lawmakers banded with others to attach to must-pass spending bills provisions to prohibit the transfer of any detainees to U.S. soil. These provisions would require the president's signature to take effect.
These actions have already had devastating consequences: Germany, which is home to a Munich-based Uighur community, recently declined to take nine of the detainees, in part because of the fear-mongering by U.S. lawmakers and strong resistance from China. The Uighurs have also found little relief in court: Last year a federal trial judge ordered the men to be brought to the United States only to be overturned by an appeals panel. Lawyers for the Uighurs have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in; in a filing last week opposing high court review, the Obama Justice Department -- echoing the Bush administration -- said no judge has the legal authority to order the men admitted into the country.
The administration may be right, but these developments threaten to make the Uighurs modern victims of a real-life version of Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit." The president should save them from this fate by using his executive power to allow them entry into the United States, following final and thorough security reviews to be shared with lawmakers in the places where Uighurs are likely to settle. This move could also help allies rethink their opposition to taking in detainees.
Mr. Obama did not create the mess that is the Guantanamo prison, but the mess is now his to clean up. If he does not act soon to grant at least some Uighurs a home in the United States, then the Supreme Court should step in to determine whether the judicial branch has any legitimate role to play in this extraordinary and extraordinarily disturbing matter. One day of wrongful imprisonment is unfortunate; years of knowingly wrongful incarceration is an abomination that cannot be tolerated if the rule of law and justice are to have any meaning.