Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Gitmo Tragedy: The Uighurs

Ginny Sloan
Ginny Sloan
Posted: July 2, 2009 02:18 PM

A Gitmo Tragedy: The Uighurs

Of the many Guantanamo tragedies, perhaps none has been greater than our handling of the Uighurs, a group of Chinese Muslim detainees. Picked up, detained, and wrongly classified as dangerous terrorists, 17 Uighurs spent more than seven years wrongfully imprisoned. Four were finally released last month, but 13 remain locked up at Guantanamo.

The courts, the United States military, and the executive branch - dating back to the former administration - have long recognized that these men are not "enemy combatants" and do not pose a threat to the nation. No moral, legal, or security grounds exist for holding these men a single day longer. This is not a partisan issue. It is one of due process, civil liberties, and fundamental fairness.

In an unexpected move on Monday, the United States Supreme Court put off deciding whether to hear the remaining Uighurs' case, Kiyemba v. Obama, until they convene again in the fall. The Uighurs seek review of a D.C. Circuit decision holding that courts lack the power to order the executive branch to release them, even though a court has found that their detention lacks any legal basis. After years of delay and disappointment, the Kiyemba case represented a glimmer of hope for the wrongfully imprisoned men. The Supreme Court's failure to take decisive action--while not an outright rejection of the Uighurs' petition--leaves the promise of their release unfulfilled, a dream deferred. Before the case is even considered, the Uighurs will remain at Guantanamo for several more months, unless either political branch steps up.

Thus far, however, the legislative and executive branches have been moving in the opposite direction. Congress has created a culture of fear in Washington, with members rushing to introduce bills that would prevent any detainees from being transferred into their districts. Just last week, Congress passed a supplemental appropriations measure that included provisions severely restricting the president's authority to bring any of the Guantanamo detainees into the United States - for trial or release. The Uighurs, who cannot be repatriated to China, their homeland, due to state-sponsored persecution, are now prohibited from being released into the United States, at least until the appropriations bill expires at the end of the fiscal year.

President Obama, for his part, has not done much better. Reacting to political pressure, he signed the supplemental appropriations bill into law, undermining his efforts to shut down Guantanamo in the process. And he continues to assert the authority to detain the Uighurs though they have won their habeas cases and pose no security threat to our country. While his administration successfully resettled four Uighur detainees in Bermuda, attempts to move the remaining detainees to the island nation of Palau or other countries have been unsuccessful thus far.

The president missed his opportunity, before this bill became law, to resettle some of the remaining Uighurs in the United States. Local Uighur communities offered to help these men integrate into our society. Of more strategic importance, by accepting its share of responsibility, the United States would have sent a clear signal to our allies, encouraging other countries to partner with us to fulfill the promise to close the Guantanamo detention facility in one year's time.

Instead, the administration now faces an uphill battle in any efforts to find alternative homes for these wrongfully detained men. At this rate, it may still be up to the Supreme Court next fall to finally provide justice for the Uighurs.

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