WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned a ruling that 17 Chinese Muslims who have been held for years at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba must be freed in the United States.
The appeals court ruled that a federal judge did not have the authority to order the U.S. government to bring the members of the Uighur ethic group to the United States for their release. It said only the executive branch, and not the courts, could make such immigration decisions.
The new administration of President Barack Obama says it will close Guantanamo within a year but has not yet decided what to do with the detainees, who were picked up as foreign terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks.
At the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder, who will play a leading role in deciding what to do with the approximately 245 prisoners left at the base, said he would visit Guantanamo next week.
Holder told reporters he would go to the base on Monday “to really see what is going on down at the facility, to see how people are being detained, to talk to people down there about the interrogation techniques that are being used.”
He called the visit “an important first step.”
In the case of the Uighurs, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina had ruled in October that there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for about seven years, were “enemy combatants” or a security risk.
He ruled they should be freed and allowed to live with Uighur families in the United States.
But the three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned his decision.
The fact that the detainees were no longer considered “enemy combatants” did not mean they qualified for admission into the United States, the appeals court said, adding, “Nor does their detention at Guantanamo for many years entitle them to enter the United States.”
The Uighurs have remained at Guantanamo because the United States has been unable to find a country willing to take them. The U.S. government has said it cannot return them to China because they would face persecution there.
The appeals court said the Uighurs were being held under the least restrictive conditions at the base while diplomatic efforts continued to find a country willing to accept them.
Lawyers for the Uighurs denounced the ruling.
Emi MacLean, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said, “The new administration must act quickly to remedy the failings of the old. If President Obama is committed to closing Guantanamo, he must allow these stranded Uighurs into the United States.”
Editing by David Storey