Uyghurs' Lawyer Vows To Fight

A lawyer for 17 ethnic Uyghurs held at Guantanamo Bay says he could take his fight for their release to the Supreme Court.
2009-02-20
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Willett_Sabin.jpg
Undated photo of Sabin Willet. Courtesy of Sabin Willet
WASHINGTON—The lead lawyer for 17 ethnic Uyghurs held for years at Guantanamo Bay is vowing to fight a new legal order keeping the men in U.S. military custody and is calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to free them quickly.

“We are bloodied but unbowed. We will fight this,” Sabin Willet, who represents the 17 Uyghurs—Muslims from China's northwestern Xinjiang region—said in a telephone interview on his way back from visiting the men at Guantanamo Bay.

“Precisely what our next legal filing will be we have not decided, but the courts have not heard the last from us,” said Willet, who spent all day Thursday with the detainees and translator Rushan Abbas at Guantanamo.

“There is a mechanism for seeking further review in the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court is a second option.”

There is deep disappointment and frustration among these men."

Sabin Willet, lawyer

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed an earlier ruling that the Uyghurs—who have been cleared of the terrorism charges on which they were initially detained—must be released in the United States.

The panel said a federal judge who ordered the men released into the United States in October 2008 lacks the authority to make such a ruling, and that only the executive branch can make such a determination.

The Uyghurs have remained at Guantanamo because the United States has been unable to find a country willing to take them and won't return them to China because they would face persecution there.

Albania, which took in five other Uyghurs in 2006 after they were released from Guantanamo, has balked at welcoming the others—apparently fearing reprisals from Beijing.

The 17 detainees “are deeply disappointed and frustrated,” Willet said. “They were a few hours from freedom on Oct. 9… This is a long time to be in a military prison. There is deep disappointment and frustration among these men.”

“At the same time we mean to remind President Obama every day that this is his problem. The court concluded that the courts can’t solve this problem, and that’s wrong, but that’s what they concluded,” Willet said.

Obama “can solve this problem, and he should do it, and he should do it tomorrow morning,” he said.

Willet said his clients were being held in better conditions recently, with military officials “working hard in the last two weeks to arrange calls” between the detainees and their families.

The Uyghur detainees resettled in Albania have tried to send letters to the Uyghurs still held at Guantanamo, he said, although whether they reached Guantanamo was unclear. He also said his request for a phone call to his clients from the Uyghurs in Albania hasn’t been met.

Previous order

The Obama administration has vowed to close the Guantanamo detention facility within a year but hasn’t decided what to do with the 245 detainees still held in custody there.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in October that there was no evidence the Uyghur detainees were "enemy combatants" or a security risk and ordered them freed to live with Uyghur families in the United States.

The Chinese government says the men are members of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which Beijing and Washington regard as a terrorist organization. Beijing blames ETIM for a series of violent attacks inside China in recent years.

China's Foreign Ministry warned this week that it was "opposed to any country accepting those people."

It also repeated its call for their repatriation. "We think that the Chinese terrorist subjects held in Guantanamo Bay should be handed over to China to be dealt with in accordance with the law," it said.

Uyghurs twice enjoyed short-lived independence after declaring the state of East Turkestan during the 1930s and 40s, and many oppose Beijing’s rule in the region. Chinese officials have said Uyghur extremists plotted terrorist strikes during the Beijing Olympics.

Original reporting by Sarah Jackson-Han in Washington.