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Judge orders release of Chinese Muslims into US

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

WASHINGTON —  A federal judge ordered the Bush administration Tuesday to immediately free 17 Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo Bay into the United States, a dramatic ruling that could set the course for releasing dozens of other prisoners at the naval facility in Cuba.

The Bush administration announced plans to ask an appeals court to block the order, calling it a threat to national security and contrary to federal laws.

"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

In a stern rebuke of the government, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said it would be wrong to continue holding the detainees since they are no longer considered enemy combatants. Known as Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurz), the men have been in custody for nearly seven years.

Over the objections of government lawyers, Urbina ordered their release in Washington D.C. by Friday. It was the first court-ordered release of Guantanamo detainees since the prison camp opened in 2002.

"Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful," Urbina said, prompting cheers and applause from local Uighur residents and human rights activists who packed into the courtroom.

Urbina, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, also ordered a hearing next week to decide where the Uighurs should be permanently settled. Until then, members of the Uighur community in the Washington area agreed to sponsor and help care for them.

"I think the moment has arrived for the court to shine the light of constitutionality on the reasons for the detention," he said.

Urbina said once the detainees arrived in Washington, they would be free to move around unsupervised, drawing the surprise of government attorneys who suggested that immigration officials might act to take the men into custody upon their arrival.

That prompted an angry response from the judge, who said he would not "take kindly" to such a government move. "That would be inappropriate," Urbina said. "There is a pressing need to have these people, who have been incarcerated for seven years, to have those conditions changed."

Roehrkasse said the government's appeal of Urbina's ruling was prompted by security concerns over the weapons training the Uighurs received at camps in Afghanistan. "The government does not believe that it is appropriate to have these foreign nationals removed from government custody and released into the United States," Roehrkasse said.

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said the decision "is contrary to our laws, including federal immigration statutes passed by Congress."

Perino said if Urbina's ruling is not reversed, it "could be used as precedent for other detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks" of Sept. 11, 2001, to seek release into the U.S.

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 since 2004 and ordinarily would have been sent home.

Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, reiterated Beijing's argument that the Uighurs are terror suspects and should be returned to China. "We ask the U.S. side to take into serious consideration of the repeated requests of the Chinese side, and handle the issue in a prudent way so as not to further harm their bilateral cooperation on combating international terrorism," Wang said.

The Bush administration has refused to turn the Uighurs over to China because they might be tortured. The Bush administration says it has found no other country is willing to accept them. Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but has since balked on 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 has long said that insurgents are leading an Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang. The Uighur detainees were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001.

Urbina's decision has broader implications for the future of the Guantanamo prison, which the Bush administration has said it wants to shut down after "working with other countries to take people back under the right circumstances."

A federal judge is set later this month to hold hearings on other Guantanamo prisoners challenging their detention as so-called enemy combatants.

Roughly 20 percent of about 250 detainees who remain at the military prison fear torture or persecution if they return to their home countries, according to the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. Their concerns raise similar questions as to where they should go if other countries refuse to take them. The U.S. has long maintained they should stay at Guantanamo.

"How many times does the Bush administration need to be told that detainees are entitled to essential rights? All the remaining detainees in Guantanamo Bay must be either charged and tried or released immediately," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The Bush administration has argued that a federal judge cannot order the release of a foreign-born detainee into the U.S., saying that would undercut immigration laws that dictate how foreigners are brought into the country.

Until a country accepts the Uighurs, they would stay in special Guantanamo housing that includes TVs, air-conditioning and recreational items such as soccer, table tennis and volleyball, government attorneys said.

O'Quinn also said federal judges should defer to the executive branch officials, who he said must consider delicate relations with China. "The court should be circumspect because of the potential for interference with foreign relations," O'Quinn said.

Sabin Willett, an attorney for the Uighurs, countered: "I've never heard anyone argue our relations with other nations are a basis for holding someone."

Rebia Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, called the decision a victory for oppressed Uighurs in China.

"This is our destiny. This is our people's win. This concerns our freedom. China accuses us of being terrorists, but we are not," she said through a translator as other Uighurs in the courtroom cried for joy.

Emi MacLean, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she hoped the decision would encourage other foreign countries to take in Guantanamo detainees who have not been charged.

"Finally, we are beginning the process of taking responsibility for our mistakes and fixing them," she said. "Allowing these wrongfully detained men a fresh start would also provide the U.S. a fresh start _ an opportunity to turn a page and finally take a position of leadership in closing Guantanamo."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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