WASHINGTON—A U.S. appeals court has refused to immediately release 17 Uyghurs held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, effectively keeping them jailed for at least another few weeks or months.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington DC ruled late Oct. 20 2-1 to halt the men’s release while the government prepares its full appeal. The appeals court ordered both sides to submit additional briefs by Nov. 7. Judges will hear oral arguments on Nov. 24.
A lawyer for the men, Sabin Willett, voiced disappointment but vowed to keep fighting for the men’s release.
“This order is a great disappointment to us. It likely means at least three more months of imprisonment, although the lawyers are now considering whether there are any options to expedite matters,” Willett said.
“We have seen dark days before, and will keep fighting,” Willett said, adding that the detainees’ legal team planned to travel to Guantanamo Bay to meet with the men on Oct. 27.
In an emergency motion, lawyers for the detainees petitioned the full appeals court to reconsider and reverse the three-judge order. "The stay order granted last evening means, conservatively, three more months of imprisonment at Guantanamo...A decision is unlikely to issue before January 2009," they wrote.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the motion.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the Bush Administration was pleased with the verdict. “We look forward to presenting our arguments before the court of appeals,” he said.
The Uyghurs—member of the mostly Muslim ethnic group concentrated in what is now China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001, and they have been in custody at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo for nearly seven years.
They aren’t considered a threat to the United States and were cleared for release in 2004, but the men fear they will face torture if they are returned to China. Human rights groups have cited a high likelihood of persecution if they are repatriated.
Seema Saifee, a New York lawyer representing four of the detainees, said her team would argue that none of the men had been shown to pose a threat to the United States.
"The government has not provided any evidence in the history of this litigation that the Uyghurs are a security risk,” Saifee said.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong, speaking in a radio interview Tuesday, reiterated Beijing’s view that all the men were terrorists who should be repatriated to China.
“China has rule of law, and it has a series of laws on handling terrorists,” Wang told the Diane Rehm Show. “They will be treated strictly according to the relevant Chinese laws…They will undergo the relevant investigations…They will be treated in a fair and just manner.”
A lower court judge, Ricardo Urbina, earlier this month ordered the government to free the detainees immediately. Urbina said it would be wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the Uyghurs since they are no longer considered enemy combatants.
The detainees were days away from being released on Oct. 10 when the appeals court stepped in and temporarily stayed Urbina's decision. On Monday, the appeals court in effect extended that stay until the full appeals process is completed.
At issue is whether a federal judge has the authority to order the release of Guantanamo prisoners who were unlawfully detained by the U.S. and cannot be sent back to their homeland.
An earlier group of 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 by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.