A U.S. federal appeals court heard legal arguments on Monday in the case of 17 ethnic Chinese Uighur Muslims held for nearly seven years at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. VOA's Dan Robinson reports it was the latest stage in a case that has become a key part of the ongoing debate over the Guantanamo facility and Bush administration detention policies.
Lawyers for the 17 men who have been held without charge at Guantanamo Bay argued that the three judge panel should let stand an October ruling by a U.S. District Court judge ordering the government to release them into the United States.
In that ruling, Judge Richard Urbina noted that the government no longer considered the men enemy combatants. He rebuked the Bush administration for what he called a detention policy that "crossed the constitutional threshold into infinitum."
However, his ruling was frozen pending hearing of oral arguments in the appeal filed by the government.
On Monday, attorney Sabin Willet argued that judges have the power to order the Uighurs released, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision giving detainees the right to challenge detentions in federal court under the legal doctrine of habeas corpus.
After oral arguments, Willet spoke at a public briefing on Capitol Hill.
"If the government wins today on the arguments that it made this morning in the court of appeals, they [the Uighur detainees] may be there for the rest of their lives, because the government's position is it really doesn't matter if you win your habeas [corpus] case," he said. " 'We don't have to let you out unless some other country solves this problem for us because we certainly don't have to solve it for ourselves by bringing them into the United States.'"
While the government no longer considers the Uighurs enemy combatants and they were cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay as early as 2003, they fear they would face torture and imprisonment as political dissidents if returned to China - a fear Beijing says is unfounded.
Lawyers noted that five other Uighurs were accepted by Albania in 2006. But so far, the United States has been unable to find countries to accept the 17 still at Guantanamo.
Solicitor General Gregory Garre called the situation regrettable, but not unprecedented. The lower court, he asserted, had overstepped its bounds and that any decision to release them into the United States involved national security and diplomatic concerns.
Attorney George Clarke, who represents one of the Uighurs, says an investigation of the circumstances of their long detention should focus not on placing blame, but on what is wrong with the process used by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.
"As we sit comfortably in this room, our warriors are making a detention decision that seriously affects our national security and their lives," he said. "To the extent we can improve the process by which those decisions are made, we owe it both to them and to the next group of innocent men that like the Uighurs who [are] unlucky enough to find themselves at the mercy of this great nation."
Attorneys for the detainees also argued that the government has yet to produce evidence that the men would pose a security threat in the United States. The government has asserted they received military training in camps in Afghanistan.
Lawyers for the group view the eventual outcome of the case as crucial to the debate over U.S. detention policies and the Guantanamo facility, which both the Bush administration and President-elect Barack Obama have said they would like to close.
Attorney Sabin Willett argues that the U.S. Congress and the president have the power to change the Uighur's situation.
"Now the Democrats have both the benefit and the burden of owning the problem," he said. "They have control in Congress and they will shortly have the White House, and it is up to those two branches of our government to end this problem quickly."
Attorney Beth Gilson says the Uighurs are a human face on what she calls "the mistakes made in the U.S. war on terror and U.S. detention policy".
"I would prefer not to see Guantanamo closed just to move it to some other place, and that we want no more Guantanamos, no more offshore prisons that are beyond the rule of our law," she said.
Also at Monday's panel discussion on Capitol Hill were Natalie Coburn, counsel to the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, and Hans Hogref of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
"The [subcommittee] chairman's concern has not only been that innocent individuals are being detained indefinitely. He is also concerned about the ramifications for the United States of such blatant mistakes in the war on terrorism," Coburn said.
"The key to the closure of Guantanamo is what is going to happen in this particular case with the Uighurs," said Hogref.
Attorneys for the Uighurs declined to predict how they think the three judge appeals court panel - composed of two Bush administration and one Clinton administration appointee - might rule.