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U.S. court blocks Uighurs' release from Guantanamo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday temporarily blocked the release of 17 Chinese Muslims held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The front gate of Camp Delta is shown at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba September 4, 2007. This photo has been reviewed by the U.S. Military. REUTERS/Joe Skipper

The appeals court granted the Bush administration’s emergency request for a stay of a federal judge’s order that the members of the Uighur ethnic group be released into the United States at the end of this week.

In a sharp rebuke for the Bush administration, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled on Tuesday there was no evidence the detainees, who have been held at Guantanamo for nearly seven years, were “enemy combatants” or a security risk.

He ordered that the prisoners be brought to his courtroom for a hearing on Friday morning, when they would be freed and allowed to live with Uighur families in the area.

The administration immediately asked for a stay of the judge’s order while it appeals the case before the U.S. appeals court.

The three-judge panel said it granted the stay only to give the appeals court more time to consider the dispute. The court ordered that briefs be filed by both sides on various dates through October 16.

It then will have decide whether the stay should remain in place. The court said the temporary, administrative stay “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits” of the government’s request.

Although the U.S. military no longer considers the Uighurs “enemy combatants,” they have remained at Guantanamo because the United States has been unable to find a country willing to take them.

In seeking a stay, the Justice Department told the appeals court that diplomatic negotiations were continuing in an effort to find an appropriate country to which the detainees could be sent.

Lawyers for the detainees opposed the request and said granting the stay would prolong the imprisonment of the Uighurs “by months and perhaps years.” They said, “The government has delayed long enough.”

In 2006, the United States allowed five Chinese Muslims released from Guantanamo to go to 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.

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.

There are about 255 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.

Editing by Peter Cooney