WASHINGTON – In a dramatic setback for the Bush administration, a federal judge ordered the U.S. government Tuesday to immediately release and transfer to the United States 17 Chinese-born Muslims detained for almost seven years at Guantanamo.
The decision marked the first time a court has ordered the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and could prompt the release of dozens of other Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release by the military but who can’t leave because the government hasn’t found a country to send them to.
Judge Ricardo Urbina declared the continued detention of the group from the ethnic Uighur minority to be “unlawful” and ordered the government to bring the detainees to the U.S. by Friday.
Reading his decision from the bench, Urbina said the government could no longer detain the Uighurs after conceding they weren’t enemy combatants. The judge also agreed with the Uighurs’ lawyers, who have argued the group can’t be returned to China because they could be tortured.
Administration officials said they intend to file an “emergency motion” Tuesday night with the federal appeals court in Washington to block the ruling.
Urbina, who at times during the hearing appeared to scold Justice Department lawyers, noted the government hadn’t charged the detainees with any crime, revealed any evidence justifying their detention and then “stymied” their release by continuing to assert erroneously that they were enemy combatants.
He described the government’s use of certain legal jargon as “Kafkaesque,” saying it “begs the question of whether they ever were enemy combatants.”
The Uighurs were first shipped to Guantanamo from Afghanistan after their capture by U.S. troops at a weapons training camp. The military accused the group of being members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and said the camp in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains was run by the Taliban. But the Uighurs denied being members of the group and receiving support from the Taliban.