A US court on Wednesday refused to release 17 Chinese Uighurs detained at Guantanamo Bay into the US, spelling more legal limbo for the men cleared by Washington of “war on terror” allegations.
The Uighurs — members of a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority — were arrested in Afghanistan and fear torture if they return home. Beijing regards the men as “Chinese terrorists.”
By a two-to-one vote, a three-judge panel of a US appeals court ruled that a federal judge does not have the authority to decide who can legally enter the US, a power they said resides only with the president or Congress.
The court struck down an Oct. 8 ruling by US District Judge Ricardo Urbina, who ordered the federal government to free the 17 men in the Washington area where there is a large Uighur community.
“We are certain that no habeas corpus court since the time of Edward I ever ordered such an extraordinary remedy,” senior Circuit Court Judge Raymond Randolph wrote.
The Uighurs have been imprisoned at the US detention center at Guantanamo for six years, even though they were cleared two years ago of being “enemy combatants.”
US President Barack Obama plans to shut down by early next year the detention camp in Cuba, which became a symbol of perceived excess in the “war on terror” under his predecessor.
Leading Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who lives in exile in Washington, said she was “disappointed” by the court decision.
“But I hope that the Obama administration still consider releasing and resettling the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo in the US,” she said.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, denounced the court move as a throwback to the Bush era.
“This decision only underscores how important it is that the Obama administration act quickly to dismantle the Bush administration's misguided national security policies and to close Guantanamo altogether,” he said.
The Obama administration said last month it “cannot imagine” sending the inmates to China, saying they could be mistreated.
In response, the Uighurs' lawyers urged their release into the Washington area, saying the US was the only nation where they could go and that the decision would encourage other countries to accept inmates.
But the Washington federal appeals court rejected the argument that the Uighurs deserve to be released into the US “after all they have endured at the hands of the US.”
“Such sentiments, however highminded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of political branches,” Randolph wrote.
Randolph argued that the court “has, without exception, sustained the exclusive power of the political branches to decide which aliens may, and which aliens may not, enter the United States, and on what terms.”
He said the court did not know “whether all petitioners or any of them would qualify for entry or admission under the immigration laws.”