President Obama recently reaffirmed his intention to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year. But lawyers for Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo are not waiting, and plan to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on their clients' behalf. The attorneys want the Supreme Court to review a recent federal appeals court decision that blocked the release of the Chinese nationals, known as Uighurs. No charges have been brought against the Uighur detainees, but just where to settle them remains an open and thorny question.
Months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan and sent hundreds of so-called enemy combatants to a sprawling detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among them were 22 Uighurs - Muslims from western China accused by Beijing of employing terrorism to achieve separatist aims.
How the Uighurs ended up in Guantanamo
Although no official accounting of the Uighurs' path to Guantanamo has been released, they are widely believed to have left China for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and been apprehended by bounty hunters who turned them over to U.S. forces.
In 2006, the Bush administration determined that five Uighur detainees posed little or no threat, and resettled them in Albania. Washington-based Attorney George Clarke represents two of the remaining 17.
"They were held until last September on the basis that they were enemy combatants, and the Bush administration's theory was that they could hold them as enemy combatants, even without charging them," he said. "As of [last] September, that basis has been removed, and the [U.S.] government has conceded that they are not enemy combatants."
Clarke says his clients and other Uighurs he has met at Guantanamo have no violent intentions towards China or any other nation.
"These men are not terrorists. They never trained to be terrorists. They never trained to target civilians to change the political machinery of China, said Clarke. "That is just completely wrong."
Conflicting opinions about their terrorist links
Charles Stimson, who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs from 2004 to 2007, disputes any characterization of the Guantanamo Uighurs as innocent refugees.
"They were leaving western China to seek out terrorist training," said Stimson. "They are on the State Department's terrorist training list under the Obama administration and the Bush administration. They are there for a reason."
This view is shared by China, which has demanded their repatriation.
"We have repeatedly and clearly expressed our position," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang. "We require the U.S. to return those terrorist suspects to China as soon as possible."
The United States has refused to do so, believing the Uighurs would face torture and persecution if sent to China. So where should they go if and when they are released from Guantanamo?
Attorney George Clarke says scores of nations have turned down U.S. requests to take the Uighurs, fearing reprisals from Beijing.
"The Chinese have put a lot of pressure on other countries not to take the Uighurs. My view is: the United States has to take some or all of these men," he said. "Why would another country step forward and ruin its relationship with China if the United States is not willing to do the same thing? If the United States is not willing to stand up to China, why would another country stand up to China?"
Uighurs never charged for ill-intentions toward U.S.
The detainee camp at Guantanamo was established to hold enemy combatants and terrorists who target the United States, not China. Whatever their intentions towards China, the Guantanamo Uighurs have never been accused of plotting against America.
Charles Stimson says many factors have to be weighed to release them into the United States, from U.S.-Chinese relations to domestic security concerns, including the possibility of an attack on Chinese interests within the United States.
"If the Obama administration thought that they were no threat whatsoever, they would have already released them into the United States," said Stimson. "The reason they are taking their time, is because they are seeing the same classified intelligence that I have seen, and they are being cautious."
President Obama says the Guantanamo detention facility has harmed America's image around the world without making the United States safer from terrorist attack. Roughly 250 detainees remain at Guantanamo, less than half the number held a few years ago.