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White House assails ruling releasing Uighur detainees

Latest update : 2008-10-08

The White House has opposed a court ruling, the first of its kind, that 17 Chinese Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay be released onto US soil. China urged repatriation of the "terrorist suspects", but Washington feared they would be tortured.

US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered on Tuesday the release of 17 Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay, on the island of Cuba. The landmark ruling is the first time a federal court has ordered the release into United States territory of any Guantanamo prisoners, a situation the White House said it would make exceptional efforts to avoid.


The detainees, Chinese members of the Uighur ethnic group, had appealed to the federal judge for their liberation from the US military prison, asking to be allowed into the United States.


China’s foreign ministry wanted the detainees to be sent back to China, saying they are members of a terrorist separatist group, but American officials resisted on grounds that they might face repression.


Muslim Uighurs are a minority group from western China, who have called for greater autonomy, and in some cases independence.


"The continued detention is unlawful"


The US Department of Defence had confirmed to the district court on Sept. 30 that the detainees would no longer be considered enemy combatants.


"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina told the courtroom on Tuesday.


The Bush administration disagrees with the court, saying the ruling sets a dangerous precedent for other "war on terror" detainees to seek release and asylum on US soil.


"The district court’s ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as a precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States… who may also seek release into our country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.


Human rights groups praised the judge’s decision. “The judge was right to order the release of the prisoners”, Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, told FRANCE 24. “The entire theory that the government can detain anybody they want on the basis of a war on terror is wrong in the first place.”


Rona added that the case could become a battle between the executive branch and the judiciary. “The government has said that they’re going to appeal. The final decision has still a long, long way to go,” he said.


According to Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, the decision was “a huge victory for the rule of law and fundamental liberties”. He said that the court had “asserted that there are limits to executive power, and ultimately the US Constitution means something”.


Other Guantanamo detainees, including Libyans and Algerians facing persecution in their home countries, have also lost their enemy-combatant status but remain in detention.

Nowhere to go


The detainees had been living in a camp in Afghanistan during the US-led bombing campaign that began in October 2001. They were detained by Pakistani authorities, who handed them over to the United States. The 17 men in question have been held in Guantanamo for more than five years.


Washington has refused to send the Uighurs back to China, where it said they would likely face further imprisonment and possibly execution.


In 2006, the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania after they were cleared of being enemy combatants.


In recent months Washington has struggled to find another country willing to accept the 17 remaining Uighurs held in Guantanamo.

A defeat for the White House


The White House reacted swiftly to block the district court’s ruling.


"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," read a statement issued by the Justice Department.


There are about 265 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants. Many have been held for years without being charged.


According to Gabor Rona, the case will be resolved in the hands of the next US administration. “There is no way that there can be a final decision before the November elections,” he said.


Asked what effects a McCain or an Obama administration could have on the case, Rona said, “Both candidates have stated that they want to close Guantanamo. But I understand when people say that an Obama administration might be less opposed to releasing the prisoners on US territory.”


Date created : 2008-10-08