WASHINGTON-A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the U.S. government must release 17 Uighurs, who are Chinese Muslims, from its enemy combatant prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Though a government appeal late Wednesday stayed the order for the time being, this is the first time prisoners would be released from Guantanamo by court order.
The government, which no longer deems the individuals "enemy combatants," no longer has cause to detain them without a trial, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina determined. The 17 were in custody for almost seven years at Guantanamo.
The Justice Department received an emergency stay on the court's order Wednesday night, in an effort to reverse the decision by the Court of Appeals. The appeal could go to the U.S. Supreme Court if it is denied by the District Court. The Justice Department, while acknowledging the prisoners were not terrorists, said in a statement that they received weapons training in Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attack, presenting "serious national security ... concerns."
"Just because they're in a place with access to AK-47s, it doesn't make them terrorists," said Nury Turkel, a Washington lawyer who is a Uighur (pronounced WEE' gur) himself and is a former president of the Uyghur American Association, a human rights group that has been an advocate for the Uighur prisoners housed at Guantanamo since 2005. (The organization uses a different spelling of the name.)
The ruling affronted the Bush administration's policy of detaining those with terrorist ties without trial. It also showcases a power struggle between the executive and judicial branch in an area where executive powers have held sway.
"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," said White House press secretary Dana Perino in a statement expressing the Bush administration's opposition to the decision.
But since the government has admitted that the 17 aren't terrorists, the main concern is that they are being released into the United States. The government has sought to send the prisoners to a country other than China, since many authorities believe they would be persecuted if they returned to their home. But diplomatic efforts haven't opened doors in other countries for them, with many fearing diplomatic repercussions from China.
Uighurs are a Muslim people group in western China, near Tajikistan. In years past, human-rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have accused China of oppressing the minority group-from suppression of activism to executions. Chinese officials, who say the Uighurs are a dangerous separatist group, demanded their repatriation on Tuesday.
The judge ordered that the released prisoners would stay with other Uighurs in the Washington, D.C., area, if the appeal does not go through. If they were returned to China, Turkel said, "it would be a one way ticket to the death chamber."
"Uighurs have no beef against the U.S.," he said. Uighurs have more of a beef with China, with their advocates saying China is committing a "cultural genocide" against them. "They see the U.S. as a source of hope."
Of course, on the other side of seven years in a U.S. prison as terrorists without trial, the 17 could make the case for feeling differently.