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Justices dismiss Gitmo Uyghurs' appeal

From Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
Uyghurs already released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, work in their kitchen in Palau in November.
Uyghurs already released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, work in their kitchen in Palau in November.
  • Case dismissed since Uyghurs have been offered the chance to go to other nations
  • Pacific island nation of Palau agreed to take some remaining prisoners, U.S. officials say
  • High court says it's too soon to take up appeal, sends case back to lower courts

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by native Chinese Muslims who had asked to be released into the U.S. from American military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The case was dissolved Monday at the government's urging since all the men have been offered the chance to go to other nations. Five have rejected the offers and remain imprisoned.

The justices said that under the circumstances, it was too soon for them to take on this appeal.

"This change in the underlying facts may affect the legal issues presented," the court wrote in an unsigned ruling. "No court has yet ruled in this case in light of the new facts, and we decline to be the first to do so."

The court was scheduled to hear oral arguments March 23, but that session has been canceled. The appeal has been sent back to lower courts to decide if it should proceed further.

The men are Uyghurs, an ethnic group from western China. They were accused of receiving weapons and military training in Afghanistan. Some of them have been cleared for release since 2003, and most of the Uyghurs who were in custody have been released to other countries.

The United States had said it would not send them back to their homeland because of concern Chinese authorities would torture them.

The Pacific island nation of Palau agreed in recent months to take in 12 of the 13 remaining prisoners, U.S. officials said.

Arkin Mahmud, one of the five who have refused to be transferred, is likely to remain indefinitely at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay or some other facility. His attorney has said his client has mental health problems that can't be treated in Palau. Mahmud's brother is among those sent to that island nation.

The Chinese government has said no Uyghurs would be mistreated if returned and has warned other countries against taking the men. Beijing last summer again urged the U.S. to hand over all remaining Uyghurs instead of sending them elsewhere.

China alleges the men are part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement -- which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist group -- that operates in the Xinjiang region. East Turkestan is another name for Xinjiang.

Eight Uyghurs were a party to the appeal to the Supreme Court. In a September 23 letter to the court, Solicitor General Elena Kagan said the U.S. government "has every reason to believe that at least six of the [Uyghur] petitioners shortly will be resettled in Palau, although it is impossible to be certain until they actually board the plane."

It took several weeks for the transfers that went through to be completed.

Among the lead Uyghur plaintiffs is Hazaifa Parhat, accused of attending a terror training camp in Afghanistan at the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks. He denies the charge.

In October 2008, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the Uyghurs released inside the United States since they were no longer considered "enemy combatants." He said further imprisonment "crossed the constitutional threshold into infinitum."

U.S. military hearings known as combatant status review tribunals determine whether a prisoner can be designated an enemy combatant and prosecuted by the military. Some legal and military analysts have likened them to civilian grand jury proceedings.

In its final days, the Bush administration appealed Urbina's decision, and a federal appeals panel ruled in February 2009 there was no legal or constitutional authority for the prisoners to be immediately freed on U.S. soil, even though they were unlawfully detained and no countries at the time were willing to accept them. The Uyghurs then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Obama administration officials had said privately they were unwilling to launch a constitutional showdown with the Supreme Court on the detainee issue. The Justice Department has concentrated on the negotiations with Palau.

Lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which was representing the Uyghurs in court, had claimed the men pose no terror threat and could have been released into a U.S. Muslim community until their cases were resolved.

Now the Uyghurs have been offered at least the opportunity to find new homes outside the U.S., the former prisoners no longer have standing to challenge their former enemy combatant status and detention in federal court. The high court's dismissal of the appeal leaves the larger constitutional issues unresolved.

In June, Bermuda accepted four of the Uyghurs after quiet negotiations with U.S. officials.

Albania accepted five Uyghur prisoners in 2006 but has refused to take any more. Human rights activists said the European nation fears economic and diplomatic retaliation from China.

The high court's decision on the Uyghurs could have implications for other Guantanamo prisoners. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled detainees can go to federal court to contest their imprisonment but that civilian judges lack the authority to order them freed.

In addition to the five Uyghurs, about 185 prisoners, many of them suspected terrorists, remain in the detention facility. About two-thirds have appealed their imprisonment and have complained the government is unfairly keeping them from finding out if any evidence exists that could clear them of wrongdoing.

Many fear arrest, physical abuse or persecution if they are sent to their homelands, according the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Efforts to find places for the detainees have been stepped up since President Obama announced he would close Guantanamo, although that closing has been delayed.