The Pentagon does not have to release a group of Muslim Chinese held at Guantánamo Bay for seven years into the US, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The appeals court overturned a landmark decision in October when a district court ordered the Pentagon to release 17 Uighurs – a Muslim minority group from Xinjiang province in China – into the US.
The ruling comes as President Barack Obama grapples with how to close the controversial Guantánamo prison. In his first week as president, Mr Obama ordered its closure within one year.
In October, Judge Richard Urbina ruled that the US constitution barred the government from indefinitely detaining the Uighurs who have been held at the prison since 2002, adding that they did not pose a security threat.
However, in a 2-1 decision on Wednesday, an appeals court overturned the lower court decision, ruling that it did not have the authority to compel the Pentagon to release the men. It questioned, for example, whether the men would qualify to enter the US under domestic immigration laws.
Pakistan handed 22 Uighurs over to US forces in 2002 after the men fled a camp in Afghanistan following the 2001 US invasion of that country. Beijing has accused the men of being part of a separatist terrorist movement in the northwest province of Xinjiang.
The Pentagon cleared most of the men for release in 2004, but has had trouble persuading other countries to accept them. Albania was the only country willing to help, taking five of the Uighurs.
Some countries were reluctant to help because the US itself refused to grant them asylum, while other countries were more concerned about antagonising China, which wants the Uighurs repatriated.
“The government has represented that it is continuing diplomatic attempts to find an appropriate country willing to admit petitioners, and we have no reason to doubt that it is doing so. Nor do we have the power to require anything more,” the appeals court said on Wednesday.
Human rights groups criticised the decision, and called on President Barack Obama to bring the men into the US, which he could do by providing a waiver to existing immigration rules.
“President Obama should exercise his power to release the Uighurs into the US,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior policy counsel at the Constitution Project.
“The appellate court’s ruling that the trial court lacked the power to compel the executive branch to release the Uighurs into the United States in no way limits the ability of the executive branch to release the Uighurs on its own.”
Separately, Eric Holder, the attorney-general, on Wednesday announced that he would visit Guantánamo Bay on Monday.
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