A U.S. federal appeals court heard legal arguments on Monday in the case
of 17 ethnic Chinese Uighur Muslims held for nearly seven years at the U.S.
detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. VOA's Dan Robinson reports it was
the latest stage in a case that has become a key part of the ongoing debate over
the Guantanamo facility and Bush administration detention policies.
Lawyers for the 17 men who have been held
without charge at Guantanamo Bay argued that the three judge panel should let
stand an October ruling by a U.S. District Court judge ordering the government
to release them into the United States.
In that ruling, Judge Richard
Urbina noted that the government no longer considered the men enemy combatants.
He rebuked the Bush administration for what he called a detention policy that
"crossed the constitutional threshold into infinitum."
ruling was frozen pending hearing of oral arguments in the appeal filed by the
On Monday, attorney Sabin Willet argued that judges
have the power to order the Uighurs released, based on a U.S. Supreme Court
decision giving detainees the right to challenge detentions in federal court
under the legal doctrine of habeas corpus.
After oral arguments, Willet
spoke at a public briefing on Capitol Hill.
"If the government wins today
on the arguments that it made this morning in the court of appeals, they [the
Uighur detainees] may be there for the rest of their lives, because the
government's position is it really doesn't matter if you win your habeas
[corpus] case," said Sabin Willet. " 'We don't have to let you out unless some
other country solves this problem for us because we certainly don't have to
solve it for ourselves by bringing them into the United States.'"
the government no longer considers the Uighurs enemy combatants and they were
cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay as early as 2003, they fear they would
face torture and imprisonment as political dissidents if returned to China - a
fear Beijing says is unfounded.
Lawyers noted that five other Uighurs
were accepted by Albania in 2006. But so far, the United States has been unable
to find countries to accept the 17 still at Guantanamo.
Gregory Garre called the situation regrettable, but not unprecedented. The
lower court, he asserted, had overstepped its bounds and that any decision to
release them into the United States involved national security and diplomatic
Attorney George Clarke, who
represents one of the Uighurs, says an investigation of the circumstances of
their long detention should focus not on placing blame, but on what is wrong
with the process used by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
"As we sit
comfortably in this room, our warriors are making a detention decision that
seriously affects our national security and their lives," said George Clarke.
"To the extent we can improve the process by which those decisions are made, we
owe it both to them and to the next group of innocent men that like the Uighurs
who [are] unlucky enough to find themselves at the mercy of this great
Attorneys for the detainees also argued that the government has
yet to produce evidence that the men would pose a security threat in the United
States. The government has asserted they received military training in camps in
Lawyers for the group view the eventual outcome of the case
as crucial to the debate over U.S. detention policies and the Guantanamo
facility, which both the Bush administration and President-elect Barack Obama
have said they would like to close.
Attorney Sabin Willett argues that
the U.S. Congress and the president have the power to change the Uighur's
"Now the Democrats have both the benefit and the burden of
owning the problem," he said. "They have control in Congress and they will
shortly have the White House, and it is up to those two branches of our
government to end this problem quickly."
Attorney Beth Gilson says the Uighurs are a human
face on what she calls "the mistakes made in the U.S. war on terror and U.S.
"I would prefer not to see Guantanamo closed just to
move it to some other place, and that we want no more Guantanamos, no more
offshore prisons that are beyond the rule of our law," said Beth
Also at Monday's panel discussion on Capitol Hill were Natalie
Coburn, counsel to the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on
International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, and Hans Hogref of the
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
COBURN: "The [subcommittee] chairman's
concern has not only been that innocent individuals are being detained
indefinitely. He is also concerned about the ramifications for the United
States of such blatant mistakes in the war on terrorism."
"The key to the closure of Guantanamo is what is going to happen in this
particular case with the Uighurs."
Attorneys for the Uighurs declined to
predict how they think the three judge appeals court panel - composed of two
Bush administration and one Clinton administration appointee - might rule.