Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Judge Orders 17 Chinese Muslims Released from Gitmo

For the first time, a federal judge has ordered the Bush administration to release prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, ordering 17 Chinese Muslims to be brought to his courtroom on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said he would hold a hearing to decide where in the U.S. the men could be released. Several religious and social groups, including 20 church leaders from Tallahassee, Fla., said they would help the men resettle in their community.

The judge's order came more than six years after the men were sent to Guantanamo and more than four years after the Pentagon cleared most of them to be released.

It also comes four months after the Supreme Court ruled judges can order the release of prisoners wrongly held at Guantanamo. Shortly after that ruling, a U.S. appeals court said the government had no basis for holding Huzaifa Parhat, one of the 17 Uighurs who had fled persecution in his native China and who then fled Afghanistan after U.S. bombing raids there.

They were taken captive by locals in Pakistan who turned them over to U.S. authorities who were offering $5,000 bounties for the suspected foreign terrorists.

Human-rights lawyers have described the Uighurs as among the worst examples of men who were wrongly imprisoned at Guantanamo. And once there, they were unable to obtain their release, most because no other country was eager to take them in. The administration could not send them home to China because of the fear they would be persecuted and imprisoned there.

"The U.S. government has long recognized these men did not pose, and really never posed, a threat to the United States," said Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch.

Nonetheless, Bush administration lawyers have continued to insist that a judge lacked the authority to release any prisoners from Guantanamo.

Civil liberties advocates hailed the judge's order as a breakthrough. "This is a historic day for the United States. Finally, we are beginning the process of taking responsibility for our mistakes and fixing them," said Emi MacLean, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The Justice Department said it planned to seek a stay of Urbina's order. His ruling "presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raised unprecedented legal issues," said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman.

More than 500 prisoners have been released from Guantanamo, including five Uighurs who were sent to Albania. More than 250 men remain in the prison in Cuba, including about 60 who would be released if the government could find countries willing to take them.

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