A federal judge Tuesday ordered the Bush administration to immediately release 17 Chinese Muslims and allow them to stay in the U.S., ruling that they are no longer considered enemy combatants.
Federal District Judge Ricardo Urbina called the detention of the 17 prisoners – ethnic Uighurs, a restive Muslim minority in western China – unlawful, saying the Constitution prohibits indefinite imprisonment without charges.
Efforts to find a home for the detainees have been complicated by fears in many countries of diplomatic reprisals by China. In June, federal appeals judges issued a decision that ridiculed as inadequate the Pentagon's secret evidence for holding one Uighur, Huzaifa Parhat, a former fruit peddler who said he had gone to Afghanistan to escape China.
Since then, the Pentagon has conceded that it would “serve no useful purpose” to continue to try to prove that any of the 17 Uighurs were ever enemy combatants.
The Uighurs say they have never been enemies of the U.S., though in 2002 they were in Afghanistan, where they were detained. They say they would be persecuted or killed if they were returned to China. The Bush administration has said it has failed to find another country willing to accept them.
The government argued that the 17 detainees should be held at Guantanamo until another country could be found to accept them. In filings, the Justice Department lawyers argued that while Urbina could hear the Uighurs' case, he could not order their release because the judiciary “simply has no authority” to do so.
The Justice Department said the government's executive branch, not the judicial branch, has the authority to conclude military detentions, as it has in prior wars. It noted that in World War II “no court ever questioned that it was solely for the political branches – not the courts” to decide how Italian prisoners of war were handled.
Sabin Willett, one of the Uighurs' lawyers, said such claims appeared to be laying the groundwork for government appeals.
When the Supreme Court ruled in June that detainees at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their detention in federal court, the justices said that after more than six years of legal wrangling the prisoners should have their cases heard quickly, because “the costs of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody.”
Until now, none of the scores of cases brought by detainees have been resolved by any judge.