WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the release of 17 Chinese-born Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a day after a landmark decision required them to be shipped to the U.S.
The move Wednesday night by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sets the stage for a protracted court battle over the fate of the men, who've been held for nearly seven years despite being cleared for release by the U.S. military. Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina had ordered the Bush administration to transfer the men to the U.S. by Friday.
The Justice Department had launched a down-to-the wire effort to stop the release of the men from the ethnic Uighur minority by seeking an emergency delay of the ruling. If the court had refused to act, the Bush administration had threatened to ask the Supreme Court to intervene.
In a three-paragraph order, the circuit court agreed to hear the Justice Department's arguments that they be permitted to appeal, but noted the purpose of their order was to give themselves "sufficient opportunity" to make a decision and "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion."
The court instructed the attorneys to file their legal arguments by Oct. 16, but didn't indicate when a decision would be made.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department was "pleased" by the court's order. "We look forward to presenting our case," he said.
Attorneys for the group, however, reacted with disappointment.
"Seventeen men were told yesterday that they were going to be released after nearly seven years of wrongful detention," said Emi MacLean, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which coordinates the representation of detainees including the Uighurs. "Now, they have to be told that their detention will continue to be indefinite."
The Uighurs are among a group of more than 60 men inside the prison who've been cleared for release by the military but who are stuck in limbo because the U.S. government can't find a country to ship them to. The Uighurs say they can't return to China because they'll be tortured as political dissidents.
Urbina's decision marked the first time a court had ordered the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. and could have prompted the release of others who've been cleared by the military.
Urbina declared the continued detention of the Uighurs to be "unlawful" and said the government could no longer detain them after conceding they weren't enemy combatants.
However, Justice Department lawyers continued to argue that the release of the group into the U.S. could pose a security risk and warned that the decision could harm international relations with China.
In court papers, Justice Department lawyers attacked Urbina's ruling, warning in court papers of "serious harms to the government and the public at large" if the appeals court did not intervene.
The lawyers said that Urbina's decision "directly conflicts with the basic principle" that the executive branch, specifically the Department of Homeland Security, has sole discretion as to whether to admit foreigners into the U.S. The Justice Department also raised security concerns about releasing men they say were captured at a weapons training camp run by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Uighurs attorneys disputed that characterization, saying the men merely were living in a small village in Afghanistan where they'd kept one weapon, but lacked ammunition.
Urbina, a Clinton appointee, also had dismissed the government's security concerns and had planned to allow the men to stay with Uighur families in the Washington area.
The Uighurs have been held in a series of prison camps across their nearly seven-year odyssey at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, from the crude open-air Camp Delta to the austere chilly Camp 6, a steel and cement prison block building where they complained to their attorneys of isolation.
Earlier this month, according to military officials, they were moved to Camp Iguana, a series of wooden Seahuts outfitted with bunk beds and couches once used for attorney-client meetings and earlier for juvenile enemy combatants. Such a move could signal their pre-release status and does afford them their first chance to chant and pray communally for years.
Urbina's decision came after the Bush administration has already suffered a series of court defeats in defending its sweeping assertion of wartime powers after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In June, the Supreme Court held in a 5-4 decision that Guantanamo detainees can challenge their extended imprisonment in federal court, and struck down as inadequate an alternative review system that Congress set up.
These habeas corpus hearings, of which the Uighurs were the first, are expected to force the Bush administration to reveal its evidence and expose publicly how the detainees have been treated. While some attorneys had predicted that the administration simply would start releasing detainees to avoid the potentially embarrassing hearings altogether, the Justice Department instead has dug in.
The Uighur ruling arises from a decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that overturned as "invalid" a military tribunal's conclusion that one of the prisoners, Huzaifa Parhat, is an enemy combatant. The court directed the Pentagon either to release or transfer Parhat or to hold a new tribunal hearing "consistent with the court's opinion."
After the appellate ruling, the government conceded that it no longer considered Parhat and the other Uighurs enemy combatants.
The Uighurs' attorneys tried Wednesday to have the same three-judge panel hear the arguments in the latest dispute, but they were turned down. Instead, another three-judge panel issued the order.
Carol Rosenberg and Michael Doyle contributed to this article.