WASHINGTON — The Obama administration told the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday that as many as eight Muslim Uighurs who've been ordered freed from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay by a federal district judge here may soon be relocated to the Pacific Island nation of Palau.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan's disclosure in a letter to the court may have been intended to discourage the court from agreeing to hear a case that could result in federal court judges having the legal power not just to order Guatanamo detainees freed, but to enforce their orders. Judges have ordered 30 detainees released after hearing the government's evidence against them, but only a handful of those have actually been transferred to other countries.
The Pentagon dropped all charges against 17 Uighurs who'd been held at Guantnamao since their detention in 2001, and a U.S. district judge in Washington ordered they be released to the United States last fall. But the judge's order was overturned, and 13 of the men remain at the detention center while the Obama administration searches for a country willing to accept them. Four other Uighurs were transferred to Bermuda earlier this year.
The Supreme Court, whose 2009-10 term officially begins Oct. 5, is scheduled to discuss the Uighur case on Tuesday. The potential release of nearly all the Uighurs from U.S. custody could allow the justices to put off until another day deciding whether judges can enforce their release orders.
President Barack Obama, like the Bush administration before him, asserts that judges don't have the jurisdiction to force the executive branch to release foreign nationals into the country.
"If the court takes that case, it becomes huge," said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Uighurs are Muslims who come from western China. China accuses them of being separatists and demanded they be returned to China. But the U.S. government has refused to do so, saying they would be subject to mistreatment there.
Kagan said the transfer of as any as 12 of the Uighurs could come sometime after Oct. 1. She said Palau has agreed to accept all but one of the 13, and that six have accepted the transfer. Efforts to persuade two others are ongoing, she wrote.
"The U.S. government has every reason to believe that at least six of the petitioners shortly will be resettled in Palau, although it is impossible to be certain until they actually board the plane,'' Kagan said.
In a separate letter to the court, Sabin Willett, a lawyer representing the Uighurs, said one of the 13, Arkin Mahmud, has not been offered a chance to resettle in Palau. "No nation has offered him refuge,'' Willett said.