The U.S. government may continue holding a group of 17 Chinese Muslims instead of releasing them in the United States, even though they are no longer considered dangerous, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in reversing an earlier decision.
In October, a trial judge ordered all 17 men freed in the Washington area after he determined that the Bush administration had no legal right to continue holding them at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They remained in custody pending the appeal.
The men are Uighurs, an ethnic group native to China’s vast western steppes that has occasionally sought autonomy from Beijing. They were detained near Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains shortly after the American invasion in late 2001 and later handed over to U.S. military officials.
They would have been the first Guantanamo detainees released in the United States.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the appeals court overruled the lower court decision, saying a judge cannot force the White House to allow foreigners entry to the United States because such decisions can be made only through immigration laws passed by Congress.
“An undercurrent of [the Uighurs’] arguments is that they deserve to be released into this country after all they have endured at the hands of the U.S.,” wrote Judge Arthur Raymond Randolph for the three-judge panel. “Such sentiments, however high-minded, do not represent a legal basis for upsetting settled law and overriding the prerogatives of the political branches.”
The ruling puts the government in an awkward position, with the Uighurs remaining in the Guantanamo detention facility as the Obama administration seeks to close it.
Advocates for the Uighurs had expected the new administration to move quickly for their release because other courts have found no evidence that they ever posed a danger to the United States.
In military tribunals at Guantanamo, many of the men said they saw themselves as allies of the U.S. against China. Several said they had traveled to Afghanistan for training to fight the Chinese.
Lawyers for the Uighurs last month wrote to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to request that the incoming administration withdraw the appeal of the release order, and lawyers for the Uighurs have discussed the case with Obama Justice Department officials.
Uighur advocates said Wednesday that because the court ruled that the White House could not be forced to release the 17 men, the Obama administration should now move on its own to release them.
The ruling “in no way limits the ability of the executive branch to release the Uighurs on its own,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior policy counsel for the Constitution Project, a legal advocacy group. “We therefore call on President Obama to choose the right course.”