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Judge orders Chinese Muslims freed from Gitmo

  • Story Highlights
  • Group of 17 Chinese Muslims must be released into United States, judge rules
  • Federal government says it will appeal ruling, seek emergency stay of the order
  • Detainees are ethnic Uighurs, from mostly Muslim region in China
  • Prisoners have been cleared for release, but no country will take them
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From Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge has ordered the immediate release into the United States of 17 Chinese Muslims who have been held for several years in the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A guard tower is visible behind razor wire at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A guard tower is visible behind razor wire at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina on Tuesday ordered the 17 detainees to appear in his Washington courtroom at 10 a.m. Friday and said he would hold a hearing next week to determine under what conditions they will be settled in the United States.

The government late Tuesday afternoon announced it would file papers shortly with an appeals court seeking an emergency stay to stop the judge's order in its tracks.

The detainees are ethnic Uighurs, from a mostly Muslim autonomous region in western China.

They have been in government custody for seven years and have been cleared for release for the past four years to any country willing to take them. No countries have volunteered.

The judge, visibly impatient, told government lawyers he wants no delays.

"There is a pressing need for them to be released," Urbina declared.

When a government lawyer requested one week for authorities to determine how immigration authorities would handle a court-ordered arrival of individuals with no status, Urbina summarily rejected the request.

He angrily demanded Immigration and Customs officials not even consider arresting the Uighurs upon arrival.

"I have issued an order. I do not want these people interfered with in any way," the judge said.

Justice Department lawyers told the judge they will immediately appeal the ruling and seek a stay of the order with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The Justice Department released a statement late Tuesday afternoon protesting Urbina's order.

"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," said Justice Department chief spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino warned the ruling represents a dangerous precedent.

"The district court's ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11 who may also seek release into our country," she said.

Dozens of colorfully dressed members of the Uighur community from the Washington area beamed as they left the courtroom and began embracing.

"We welcome this. It has been a very long time," said Amy Reger of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The United States determined in 2004 the 17 Uighurs are not enemy combatants, but has kept them at Guantanamo while trying to persuade other countries to resettle them. Officials said they were not returned to China because of credible fears they could be mistreated if returned.

The Uighurs fled Afghanistan shortly after the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in 2001. They were turned over to U.S. military officials by Pakistani authorities.

U.S. intelligence officials alleged the Uighur detainees are associated with the East Turkmenistan Islamist Movement, which the administration designated a terrorist organization in 2002. Lawyers for the Uighurs dispute any terrorist connections.

Attorneys for the 17 detainees promised the court that if the judge's ruling stands, a Lutheran church group in Maryland and other service groups are prepared to provide both short-term and long-term care and support for the freed prisoners. Seventeen Uighur homes have been identified to initially house the detainees.

Urbina scheduled an October 16 hearing for immigration officials and other government agencies to discuss conditions for the 17 men.

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