Justice Delayed, But Justice Nonetheless

From the Washington Post:

“A federal judge today ordered that 17 Chinese Muslims held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison be released into the United States by Friday, agreeing with the detainees’ attorneys that the Constitution bars holding the men indefinitely without cause.

It was the first time that a U.S. court has ordered the release of a Guantanamo detainee, and the first time that a foreign national held there has been ordered brought to the United States.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina issued the landmark ruling in the case of a small band of captives, known as Uighurs, who have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years and are no longer considered enemy combatants by the U.S. government.

At a hearing packed with Uighurs who live in the Washington area, Urbina rejected government arguments that he had no authority to order the men’s release. He said he had such authority because the men were being held indefinitely and it was the only remedy available. He cited a June decision by an appellate court that found evidence against the Uighurs to be unreliable.

Urbina said in court that he ordered the release “because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause.” He added, “The separation of powers do not trump” the prohibition against holding people indefinitely without trial.

A government appeal of the decision is likely.”

Apparently, the judge has denied the government’s request for a stay of the order pending appeal. An appellate court might still grant a stay, though.


I have written about this case before. Here’s the basic story: a number of Uighurs had left China, where Uighurs are persecuted, for a Uighur camp in Afghanistan. They got some training in small arms, but claimed not to be affiliated with the Taliban or al Qaeda. When we went to war with Afghanistan, they fled to Pakistan to escape the bombing. Early in 2002, they were sold to the US by bounty hunters, and sent to Guantanamo. Some were cleared in late 2003; others were determined to be “low-risk detainees whose enemy was China’s communist government — not the United States.” They could not be sent back to China “for fear China will imprison, persecute or torture them”. The government tried to find another country willing to take them, but failed. By the sort of astonishing coincidence that this administration seems curiously prone to, Albania volunteered to take the five men who had been cleared just days before an appeals court was set to hear a case about whether they should be freed. The rest remained at Guantanamo. Here’s an account of the conditions in which they are being held:

“In Camp 6, the Uighurs are alone in metal cells throughout the day, are prohibited for the most part from conversing with others, and take all their meals through a metal slot in the door, lawyer P. Sabin Willett said in his affidavit, which was based on what he was told during his visit Jan. 15-18. They have little or no access to sunlight or fresh air, have had nothing new to read in their native language for the past several years, and are sometimes told to undertake solitary recreation at night, he said.

“They pass days of infinite tedium and loneliness,” according to Willett’s court filing. One Uighur’s “neighbor is constantly hearing voices, shouting out, and being punished. All describe a feeling of despair . . . and abandonment by the world.” Another Uighur, named Abdusumet, spoke of hearing voices himself and appeared extremely anxious during Willett’s visit, tapping the floor uncontrollably, he said.”

Last June, the government tried to defend its continued detention of some of the Uighurs. However:

“The government suffered a major setback in June when a federal appeals court found the evidence against one Uighur to be so weak that it compared the government’s legal theories to a nonsensical 19th-century poem, Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” The court ordered the man, Huzaifa Parhat, released, transferred or offered a new military hearing.

The government chose not to retry Parhat and announced it would no longer treat him as an enemy combatant. It subsequently did the same for four others and added the final 12 late last month.”


As I said, the government defends its continued detention of the Uighurs on the grounds that they could not be released to China, since they would face torture, and no other country would take them. But there has always been one option available to us, other than keeping them locked up in perpetuity: releasing them into the US. One might think that this would be the least we could do: we have, after all, robbed them of nearly seven years of their lives, and kept them in absolutely inhumane conditions. But our government has consistently refused to do this, to their shame and ours.

Luckily, some of our citizens don’t take the same narrow view of our moral obligations that our government does:

“Religious and community leaders from both Tallahassee, Florida and the Washington D.C. area offered to the court detailed plans for the support of the men, from housing and counseling to employment and car insurance. In this stunning show of goodwill and solidarity, 20 leaders from faith-based communities in Tallahassee, Florida, and a network of refugee resettlement agencies and other religious groups, have pledged to help settle the men in local communities. Many members of the Uighur community came to court today to lend support.”

Good for them. Good for the judicial system. Shame on our government, which preferred compounding a deep injustice to making things right. And may the appeals process on this and all similar cases be as brief as they can possibly be.