Appeals court refuses to immediately release Turkic Muslims at Guantanamo

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

WASHINGTON -- A divided federal appeals court on Monday refused to allow the immediate release into the U.S. of 17 Turkic Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, agreeing to keep them in prison for at least several more weeks.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with the Bush administration in halting the Muslims' release while the government prepares its full appeal. Attorneys for the detainees, a group of Muslims from China known as Uighurs, had asked that they be freed into the U.S. pending the time-consuming appeal.

The appeals court ordered both sides to submit additional briefs by Nov. 7. Judges will hear oral arguments Nov. 24.

"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," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

Attorneys for the detainees declined immediate comment late Monday as they weighed their next move. One possibility might be to appeal to Supreme Court, which ruled in June that foreign detainees at Guantanamo have the right to appeal to federal judges to challenge their imprisonment.

Voting to halt the detainees' immediate release were Judges Karen Henderson and A. Raymond Randolph.

In a four-page dissent, Judge Judith W. Rogers argued the detainees should be freed. She noted the Bush administration had acknowledged the Uighurs were no longer considered enemy combatants even as it argued the detainees were a national security risk based on little more than the fact they had admitted to receiving weapons training in Afghanistan.

"The fact that petitioners received firearms training cannot alone show they are dangerous, unless millions of United States resident citizens who have received firearms training are to be deemed dangerous as well," Rogers wrote. "And, in any event, the district court found there is no evidence petitioners harbor hostility toward the United States."

She added that the government's appeal was problematic "given both the length of time that petitioners have been denied their liberty" and the years the government has already had up to now -- with little success -- to justify the Uighurs' continued imprisonment.

The Uighurs have been in custody at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo for nearly seven years.

The appeals court's move comes after U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina earlier this month ordered the government to free the detainees right away. Urbina said it would be wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the Uighurs since they are no longer considered enemy combatants.

The detainees were days away from being released on Oct. 10 when the appeals court stepped in and temporarily stayed Urbina's decision. On Monday, the appeals court in effect extended that stay until the full appeals process is completed.

At issue is whether a federal judge has the authority to order the release of Guantanamo prisoners who were unlawfully detained by the U.S. and cannot be sent back to their homeland. The Uighurs, who are Turkic-speaking Muslims in western China, have been cleared for release from Guantanamo but fear they will be tortured if they are turned over to China.

The Bush administration has said it was continuing "heightened" efforts to find another country to accept the Uighurs.

Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but since has balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.

Uighurs are from Xinjiang -- an isolated region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and six Central Asian nations -- and say they have been repressed by the Chinese government. China long has said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang. The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

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