WASHINGTON—A U.S. appeals court has ruled against releasing into the United States 17 ethnic Uyghurs held for years at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though they have been cleared of terrorism allegations.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled Feb. 18 that a federal judge lacks authority to order the U.S. government to bring the men to the United States for release, and that only the executive branch can make such a determination.
The Uyghurs, Muslims from China's northwestern Xinjiang region, 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has vowed to close Guantanamo within a year but hasn’t decided what to do with the 245 detainees still held in custody there.
Uyghurs in Washington voiced dismay at the ruling.
“This is a bad decision for the Uyghur prisoners, because they will
stay longer in jail. But it’s doesn’t amount to a judgment that they
are guilty—and it doesn’t suggest they pose a threat to the United
States,” Nury Turkel, a lawyer and
leader in the Uyghur-American community here, said in an interview.
Rushan Abbas, who has worked as a translator for the detained men, said she remained hopeful.
“When I heard this decision, I was disappointed—because now I have to bring bad news to the Uyghurs in Guantanamo," she said.
“This decision indicated that the court alone can’t solve the
issue—it must be resolved by governments. President Obama is making
human rights a priority,” she said. “Therefore I believe the Uyghur
detainee issue will be resolved properly and justly under the Obama
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in October that there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for about seven years, were "enemy combatants" or a security risk and ordered them freed to live with Uyghur families in the United States.
The appellate panel said that the determination that the detainees were no longer considered "enemy combatants" didn’t mean they qualified to immigrate to the United States.
The court also rejected the argument that the Uyghurs should be released into the United States because of their extended incarceration.
An earlier group of five Uyghur detainees was released to Albania in 2006, but Albania has balked at welcoming the others—apparently fearing reprisals from Beijing.
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.
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 in Uyghur by Shohret for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han