WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court said Monday that the U.S. military improperly labeled a Chinese Muslim held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an “enemy combatant” and ordered that he be released, transferred or granted a new hearing.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., was the first time a federal court has weighed in on the issue of a Guantanamo detainee’s classification and granted him the opportunity to try to secure his release through civilian courts.
A lawyer for Huzaifa Parhat, who has been kept virtually incommunicado for more than six years, said he and other members of Parhat’s legal team would seek to have him freed immediately. Parhat is one of 17 ethnic Muslims known as Uighurs who are being held at Guantanamo even though the U.S. government concedes that they pose no threat.
In responses to the ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement saying, “We’re reviewing the decision and considering our options.”
The decision was the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the Bush administration and its efforts to defend the military commissions process at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.
The order came just 11 days after the Supreme Court ruled that the 270 or so detainees at Guantanamo have a basic constitutional right of habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge their detention in federal courts.
Parhat, 37, and other Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but he has insisted that he sought refuge there from an oppressive Chinese government and never fought against the United States. The U.S. government has produced no evidence suggesting that he ever intended to fight but designated him as an enemy combatant because of alleged links to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a separatist group demanding independence from China that the U.S. says has links to al-Qaida.
Five Uighurs were released from Guantanamo two years ago to seek asylum in Albania, after the United States said it could not return them to China because they would face persecution there.
Parhat is one of 17 Uighurs still being held at Guantanamo, and all of them have been cleared for release as part of annual reviews, a U.S. official said Monday.
The Uighurs still at Guantanamo have become a legal and diplomatic headache for the Bush administration, which says it cannot find a country willing to accept them.