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Chinese Muslim detainees take case to Supreme Court

  • Story Highlights
  • 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay despite judge's ruling in October
  • They are accused of receiving weapons, training in Afghanistan
  • United States officials fear that they would be tortured if they return to China
  • China has warned other countries against taking the men
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By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A group of native Chinese Muslims asked the Supreme Court on Monday to order their release into the United States from American military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Obama has ordered the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President Obama has ordered the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A federal appeal panel ruled in February that there was no legal or constitutional authority for the prisoners to be immediately freed even though they are unlawfully detained, and no countries currently are willing to accept them.

The 17 men are Uighurs, an ethnic group from western China. They are accused of receiving weapons and military training in Afghanistan. Some of the prisoners have been cleared for release since 2003, but the United States will not send them back to their homeland because of concerns that they would be tortured by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese government has said that no returned Uighurs would be tortured but warned other countries in January against taking the men.

In October, a federal judge ordered the Uighurs released inside the United States because they are no longer considered "enemy combatants." U.S. District Judge Richard Urbina had said that further imprisonment "crossed the constitutional threshold into infinitum."

The Bush administration had appealed that decision in its final days, but there is no word on whether the Obama Justice Department will now change its views on the detainees' rights.

The justices may not take up the Uighur appeal for weeks or months. If accepted for review, oral arguments would be given this year.

Complicating matters in the years-long legal fight is that President Obama has announced plans to close the military prison in Guantanamo.

About 250 prisoners, many of them suspected terrorists, remain in the prison. Approximately two-thirds have appealed their continued imprisonment and have complained that the government is unfairly keeping them from finding out whether any evidence exists that could clear them of wrongdoing.

Many fear arrest, physical abuse or persecution if they are sent to their homelands, according the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the Uighurs in court. It said the men pose no terror threat and could be released into the United States and stay with a local Muslim community until their cases were resolved.

Among the lead Uighur plaintiffs is Hazaifa Parhat, accused of attending a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan at the time of the September 11 attacks. He denies the charge.

Federal judges handling appeals from Guantanamo prisoners have grown frustrated in recent months with the continued detention of some of the men. Albania had accepted five Uighur prisoners in 2006 but has refused to allow any more in the country. Human rights activists say that European nation is concerned about economic and diplomatic retaliation from China.

U.S. military hearings known as combatant status review tribunals determine whether a prisoner can be designated an "enemy combatant" and prosecuted by the military. Some legal and military analysts have likened them to civilian grand jury proceedings.

Any final decision on the Uighurs could have implications for the other Guantanamo prisoners. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that detainees can go to federal court to contest their imprisonment but that civilian judges lack the authority to order them freed.

The high court appeal is Kiyemba v. Obama.

All About Guantanamo BayU.S. Supreme CourtChina

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