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This coming Friday could bring a remarkable moment in story of the Guantanamo prison camp. Yesterday, a federal judge in Washington said that 17 Guantanamo detainees should be taken out of that camp. He says they should be brought to his courtroom on Friday and then be released in the United States. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG: The detainees are 17 Muslim Chinese, known as Uighurs, who've been held at Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years. In past decades, the U.S. government has treated the group as Chinese nationalists. But in 2003, in an effort to accommodate the Communist Chinese government, the Bush administration listed one of the Uighur groups as a terrorist organization, and used that as a justification for the continued detention of the Uighurs at Gitmo.
In June however, a largely conservative panel of the federal appeals court here in Washington ruled that the group is not hostile to the U.S. and the court said that the Bush administration had produced no reliable information to justify the Uighurs attention. The court then sent the case back to the lower court for further action, including release. Yesterday, Federal Judge Ricardo Urbina said, in essence, enough is enough. Whatever authority the government once may have had for detaining the Uighurs, he said, that authority has ceased. The government, he noted, now concedes these men are not enemy combatants, and has provided no other justification for detention, so he ordered the men released into the United States and told the administration to produce the men in his courtroom this Friday morning. Uighurs living in the United States have arranged for 17 families to take the men until more permanent arrangements can be made.
And Judge Urbina said he would hear from the Department of Homeland Security as to what conditions that department would like imposed on the men after release - conditions such as a ban on travel and requirements that the men report to authorities on a regular basis. The judge reacted angrily, however, when administration lawyers suggested they could imprison the men in the United States once they're transferred here. And it's expected he will forbid that. As luck would have it, one of the lawyers for the Uighurs was in Guantanamo yesterday and last night told them of their court victory. The lawyer however is not permitted to talk about the men's reaction by phone under classification rules.
The Chinese government yesterday again demanded the return of the men, but the United States has refused to do that because it concedes they would be tortured and possibly killed. No other country has been willing to take the men because of fears that the Chinese would retaliate. That leaves the United States as the only place the men can be released, but the Bush administration takes the position that the courts have no power to order that, that it's simply beyond the powers of the judicial branch. Judge Urbina rejected the administration's request to put his order on hold while the government appeals. That would only mean more delay he said and delay has been the name of the game for nearly seven years. So now the administration is moving up the ladder, going first to the appeals court for a stay of Urbina's order, but as one of the Uighurs' lawyers, Sabin Willett, observes, the posture of this case is unusual.
Mr. SABIN WILLETT (Uighurs Lawyer): It's very rare that you go up to a reviewing court, and that court's already looked at the case and has said, I think this is pretty near a direct quote, there is no question that the district judge will have the power to order them released.
TOTENBERG: If the administration fails to win a stay in the appeals court, it will likely go to the Supreme Court. But in June, the high court ruled in another Gitmo case that the prisoners at Guantanamo have the right to have their cases heard quickly because, as the court put it, the costs of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody. If either the appeals court or the Supreme Court grants the administration's motion to temporarily block Judge Urbina's order, it would likely mean the issue will be kicked over to the next administration, and the Bush administration would leave its tangled and at least partially discredited detention policies to be untangled by its successors. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.