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Justices reject appeal from Guantanamo detainees over delayed release

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • Five native Chinese Muslims are seeking release into the United States
  • The Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling denying their release
  • The ethnic Uyghurs have rejected resettlement offers from other countries

Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from the remaining group of five native Chinese Muslims held in American military custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who sought their release into the United States.

The justices issued a brief order Monday, the latest twist in an ongoing legal and political fight. At issue is whether federal courts have the authority to order the release of an unlawfully held overseas prisoner into the United States when no other remedy is available.

A federal appeals court panel had ruled last year there was no legal or constitutional authority for the prisoners to be immediately freed even though they are unlawfully detained. The captives have rejected at least two resettlement offers from other countries.

The U.S. government, which says the prisoners are no longer considered "enemy combatants" or a national security threat, reiterated they would not be sent to places where they might face torture or continued imprisonment. Six of the men released so far have been sent to the Pacific island nation of Palau, while 11 others have gone to Bermuda, Albania and Switzerland.

The five remaining ethnic Uyghurs -- who have been in custody nearly nine years -- had refused to be sent to Palau and another country the United States has refused to identify.

The current and former administrations -- backed by many members of Congress -- have strongly opposed the detainees' release in to the United States.

The justices had previously agreed to hear the Uyghurs' broader constitutional claims over their years-long detention, but the case was tossed out as moot, since most of the men have been freed or are in the process of being freed. The continuing stalemate over the remaining Uyghurs prompted this latest appeal to the high court.

In a written statement, Justice Stephen Breyer said the current legal dispute remains inappropriate for high court review. "Should circumstances materially change, however," he wrote, "petitioners may of course raise their original issue (or related issues) again in the lower courts and in this court."

Breyer noted "the government's uncontested commitment to continue to work to resettle" the remaining prisoners. His views were supported by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor.

The men are Turkic Muslims, an ethnic group from western China. They were accused of receiving weapons and military training in Afghanistan. Some of the prisoners have been cleared for release since 2003, but the United States will not send them back to their homeland because of concern they would be tortured by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese government has said no returned Uyghurs would be tortured, but warned other countries in January against taking the men.

A federal judge had ordered the Muslim men released inside the United States since they are no longer considered "enemy combatants." U.S. District Judge Richard Urbina had said further imprisonment "crossed the constitutional threshold into infinitum."

The Uyghurs are among dozens of prisoners, many of them suspected terrorists, held in the prison. Approximately two-thirds have appealed their continued 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, which is representing the Uyghurs in court. It said the men pose no terror threat and could be released into the United States and stay with a local Muslim community until their individual cases were resolved.

Most of the Uyghurs were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. They have all denied terror involvement.

Federal judges handling appeals from Guantanamo prisoners had grown frustrated in recent years with the continued detention of some of the men.

Albania accepted five Uyghur prisoners in 2006, but has refused to allow any more in the country. Human rights activists say that European nation is concerned about economic and diplomatic retaliation from China.

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.

Any final legal resolution on the remaining Uyghurs could have implications for the other Guantanamo prisoners. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that detainees can go to federal court to contest their imprisonment, but that civilian judges lack the authority to order them freed.

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the current case, since she had helped handle the case while she was solicitor general under President Obama.

The case is Kiyemba v. Obama (10-775).