WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday, in a rebuke to the Bush administration, ordered the prompt release in the United States of 17 Chinese Muslims held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina read his ruling from the bench at a hearing to consider the appeals by the members of the Uighur ethnic group who are seeking their freedom and asking to come to the United States.
The judge said there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years, were "enemy combatants" or a security risk, and that the U.S. Constitution prohibits indefinite detention without cause.
He ordered them brought to his courtroom for a hearing on Friday and scheduled another hearing for Thursday of next week to determine the conditions of their release.
The Justice Department filed an emergency request on Tuesday night for a stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. If it loses there, it has the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The department said diplomatic negotiations were continuing in an effort to find an appropriate country to which the detainees could be sent.
"Today's ruling presents serious national security and separation of powers concerns and raises unprecedented legal issues," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said in a statement.
The ruling was a setback for the Bush administration, which argued that federal judges do not have the authority to order the release into the United States of the detainees.
The White House strongly disagreed with the court decision and said it could set a dangerous precedent.
"The district court's ruling, if allowed to stand, could be used as precedent for other detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including sworn enemies of the United States suspected of planning the attacks of 9/11, who may also seek release into our country," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Attorneys for the prisoners said the landmark ruling was the first time a federal court had ever ordered the release into the United States of any Guantanamo prisoners.
The Uighurs had been living in a camp in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led bombing campaign that began in October 2001. They fled into the mountains and were detained by Pakistani authorities, who handed them over to the United States.
They remain in the prison even though the U.S. military no longer considers them "enemy combatants." The United States has been unable to find a country willing to accept them.
In 2006, the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to seek asylum in Albania. The U.S. government has said it cannot return the Uighurs to China because they would face persecution there.
Many Muslim Uighurs, who are from Xinjiang in far western China, seek greater autonomy for the region and some want independence. Beijing has waged a relentless campaign against what it calls their violent separatist activities.
There are about 265 detainees at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.
"We are thrilled," said Sabin Willett, an attorney for some of the prisoners. "Justice has too long been delayed but today we saw a great judge give a principled and just decision."
Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch, said, "The government should not drag its feet, but should immediately release these men from their unlawful confinement."
Lawyers for the Uighurs said they would likely settle in Tallahassee, Florida, and the Washington, D.C., area, where religious and community leaders have offered to support them by providing housing and work.