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US Court says Guantanamo Detainee Not 'Enemy Combatant'

A U.S. federal appeals court has struck down the U.S. military's classification of a Guantanamo Bay detainee as an enemy combatant. VOA's Michael Bowman reports, this is the first time the U.S. court system has overruled the Bush administration's designation of a detainee since the Guantanamo facility began operations in early 2002.

The court ruled in favor of a Chinese Muslim, Huzaifa Parhat, who has spent the last six years in detention and is one of more than 100 detainees to challenge their enemy combatant status in the U.S. judicial system. The court directed the U.S. military to release Parhat, transfer him out of Guantanamo, or hold a new proceeding to once again determine his status.

The court announced its decision without providing any details, saying the ruling contains classified information. The Department of Defense did not immediately comment on the matter.

Human rights groups say the appeals court ruling is a landmark decision for Guantanamo detainees, yet one with little practical benefit for Parhat.

Stacy Sullivan is a counter-terrorism advisor for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"He [Parhat] will probably not be released," she said. "He is a Chinese Uighur, and there are a number of Chinese Uighurs being held at Guantanamo who are already declared no longer enemy combatants. But they cannot leave Guantanamo because they have nowhere to go. They cannot be sent back to China because they have a well-founded fear of torture [in China], and the United States to its credit will not send them back there. So the Uighurs are pretty much stuck in Guantanamo."

In 2006, the United States released five Uighurs from Guantanamo and resettled them in Albania. China, which regards the Uighurs as terrorists and separatists, demanded Albania to return them to China. Albania did not comply.

U.S. authorities believe some Uighurs have links to al-Qaeda. But they admit the Uighurs held at Guantanamo never fought against the United States, nor did they take part in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Human Rights Watch's Stacy Sullivan says the plight of the Guantanamo Uighurs points to a real dilemma facing the United States if at some point it decides to close Guantanamo, an action favored by both presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

"There are about 50 detainees there who have said they do not want to go home because they fear being tortured: Uzbeks, Libyans, Uighurs, a few other nationalities," she said. "What is to be done with them? It is simple enough to transfer those for whom we have evidence of terrorism and try them in our federal court system. But the 50 detainees who cannot go home, it is unclear what is going to happen to them, and that is going to make closing Guantanamo really difficult."

The federal appeals court ruling follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this month affirming the right of Guantanamo suspects to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts.