WASHINGTON-Seventeen prisoners who have been in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, seven years are in the middle of a court battle for their release.
Lawyers for the prisoners appealed to the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court Tuesday to hear their case for immediate release. They fear that their clients could languish in Guantanamo for another year while the case slumps under delays from the Justice Department's legal team.
The United States government no longer deems the prisoners, Chinese Muslims who have been imprisoned for seven years, enemy combatants. A federal judge ordered their release Oct. 10, but the Justice Department filed to halt his decree. The D.C. Circuit Court agreed in a split decision Monday to ban their transfer to the United States until at least late November. The court will hear government appeals in the interim.
The Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, offer a dilemma to judges because they have been cleared for release, but they have no country to accept them. Government officials are not considering returning them to China, their home country, because they could face threats of torture and execution. Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have accused China of oppressing the ethnic minority.
Albania accepted five Uighur detainees in 2006 but since has balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.
Chinese officials, who say the Uighurs are a dangerous separatist group, demanded the repatriation of the 17 detainees earlier in October.
The original ruling ordering the detainees' release placed them in homes of other Uighurs in the Washington, D.C., area.
Internal politics are making the dilemma muddier. The State Department had been in negotiations with countries to receive the freed prisoners, but those talks stopped when the Justice Department issued a statement that the prisoners were a national security concern, all in an effort to halt their release into the United States. Following the statement, the State Department quit seeking negotiations because it knew no countries would come to the table.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo detainees could file appeals contesting their imprisonment, contradicting the Bush administration's position on the issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.