Supreme Court dismisses case of Uighurs held at Guantanamo

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday dropped a case filed by Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which the Uighurs sought to be brought to the U.S. because no other country would accept them.

The court had originally accepted the case to determine if federal judges had the power to order the executive branch to release Guantanamo prisoners into the U.S.

Since the court agreed to hear the case, however, the seven Uighur detainees remaining at Guantanamo have been offered asylum in other countries.

"By now, however, each of the detainees at issue in this case has received at least one offer of resettlement in another country," the court noted. "This change in the underlying facts may affect the legal issues presented."

The court ordered the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which previously had ruled against the Uighurs, to rehear the case, consider the new circumstances, and make a determination of what should be done.

Advocates for the Uighurs expressed disappointment in the court's decision not to hear the case, which was scheduled for oral arguments March 23. However, they saw some hope in the court's voiding of the appeals court ruling.

"The issue survives," said Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that has taken the lead in pressing the Uighurs' case. "There may be other detainees who arrive at the Supreme Court who also lack a place to go, (and) mere release of the Uighurs shouldn't defeat the case."

"We had hoped that the Supreme Court would have taken this opportunity to reaffirm that courts must have the power to order release where a detainee is being held illegally," said Sharon Bradford Reynolds of the Constitution Project. "However, we are pleased that the (appellate) decision will not stand as precedent for future detention cases."

As of Monday, there were 188 detainees at Guantanamo, among them 12 men who have been ordered freed by judges but for whom the U.S. is either reviewing the rulings or seeking nations to resettle them.

The Supreme Court decision wasn't unexpected. Last month, the court had asked attorneys for both sides to submit arguments on the impact of recent developments.

Traditionally, the court steers clear of disputes it need not resolve.

"It's judicial modesty," said Vijay Padmanabhan, a former State Department attorney and currently visiting assistant professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. "It's the court saying, we don't need to reach out and make a difficult political decision."

Of the 17 Uighurs identified in the petition to the Supreme Court, 10 had been relocated to new homes as of early February — four in Bermuda and six in Palau.

Two others accepted a relocation offer from Switzerland last month, and the remaining five had been offered new homes in Palau and another, unidentified nation — offers they didn't accept. Since then, the second nation has withdrawn its offer, government attorneys told the court.

Originally, 22 Uighurs were, in the words of their attorneys, "seized in error in the fog of the Afghanistan war" and taken to Guantanamo. During the "darkest days" of their detention, their attorneys said, the Uighurs "were confined in almost total isolation, with almost no social interaction or exposure to sunlight."

The Bush administration eventually conceded that the Uighurs weren't terrorists. Because the Uighurs, an ethnic minority often at odds with the Chinese government, faced potential imprisonment and torture if returned to China, however, Bush administration officials said they couldn't be sent there.

Five were resettled in Albania in 2006, but there were no offers of asylum for the other 17.

In October 2008, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered that the men be released into the U.S. That marked the first time a trial judge had ordered the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees in response to a habeas corpus decision.

Urbina's order, in turn, was overturned by the appeals court, which ruled that the judge was encroaching on the president's turf.

"The district court cited no statute or treaty authorizing its order, and we are aware of none," the appellate court reasoned.

By explicitly striking down that appellate ruling Monday, Padmanabhan noted, the Supreme Court is now leaving "an open question" as to whether trial judges have the authority to order detainees released. He said that ambiguity could be useful in pressuring the administration to find new homes for the detainees.

Dixon accused both the Bush and Obama administrations of repeatedly trying to thwart judicial review of Guantanamo Bay detention cases by "a pattern and practice of delay."

"What's happened in all these Guantanamo cases — and the Uighur case is just the latest example of this — is that the government has delayed for as long as possible, and when the detainees finally get to the steps of the Supreme Court the government tries to eliminate the case by releasing these people," Dixon said. "That pattern and practice of delay undermines the effectiveness of the writ of habeas corpus."

On Monday, the Supreme Court directed the D.C. appeals court to re-examine the legal dispute in the light of changed circumstances. Potentially, the trial judge who ordered the Uighurs freed in the first place could handle the case again.

(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)

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Follow legal developments at McClatchy's Suits & Sentences.

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