WASHINGTON (AFP) – A US federal judge has ordered a group of 17 Chinese Muslim Uighurs held at the Guantanamo Bay military jail in Cuba to be released in the United States, officials have said.
It was the first time a court had ordered that “war on terror” prisoners detained at the US base should be released onto US soil, and the government of President George W. Bush swiftly said it planned to appeal the decision.
The 17 Muslim Uighurs were officially declared no longer “enemy combatants” by the government earlier this year, but officials had maintained they could continue to hold the men at Guantanamo Bay if no other country accepted them.
The White House condemned the ruling saying it paved the way for extremists to demand the same freedom, and added it would continue to work to find another country to take in the men.
“The district court’s ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11, who may also seek release into our country,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement Tuesday.
Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered that the 17 men be brought before him in Washington on Friday to be introduced to some Uighur families who will take them in.
Another hearing will be organized on October 16 to determine under what conditions the men should be allowed to reside in the United States, and what status they should be given.
China has urged the United States to repatriate the “terrorist suspects,” but Washington has resisted, fearing they would be tortured upon return to their remote northwestern province of Xinjiang.
Tuesday’s decision was hailed by rights groups as another blow to the US authorities and their handling of “war on terror” suspects.
“It is another victory for the Uighurs because this is a message to the Chinese government who treat them as terrorists and try even taking them back,” said Nury Turkil, director of the Uighurs’ human rights project.
Turkil said 17 families had come forward offering to take the men in.
“The situation facing the Uighurs is a stark reminder of the legal and moral quagmire of Guantanamo,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.
Human Rights Watch also welcomed the “landmark decision” and said as many as six of the men were still imprisoned in solitary confinement.
“The government should not drag its feet, but should immediately release these men from their unlawful confinement at Guantanamo,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.
The Justice Department sought an emergency stay of the decision, arguing the ruling presented “serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues.”
“In response to today’s ruling, we are filing an emergency motion for stay pending appeal tonight with the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit,” the Department said in a statement.
Earlier Tuesday, Beijing urged Washington to repatriate the group, alleging they were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement “which has been listed as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council.”
“China has urged the US to repatriate these Chinese terrorist suspects to China on many occasions,” said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
For years the United States has attempted to persuade other countries to resettle the group, recognizing that the Turkic-speaking minority has been widely persecuted by Chinese authorities.
Only Albania has agreed to take the Uighurs, welcoming a group of five in 2006, who now live far from their homes with no possibility of returning to their families any time soon.
The group was living in a self-contained camp in Afghanistan when the US-led coalition bombing campaign began in October 2001.
They fled to the mountains, but were turned over to Pakistani authorities, who then handed them to the United States.
The government fears the ruling could have widespread effects on other cases before the federal courts, with some 250 detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, many of whom are challenging their detentions.
Shahrul Peshawar – Uighur is not a threat to the US, even to the CHINESE Government. They are peace-loving community. Treat them as other citizens who have dignity and pride. Stop double standard and ill treatment to these people.