WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Wednesday temporarily blocked a judge's decision to release 17 Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the U.S.
In a one-page order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued the emergency stay at the request of the Bush administration. The three-judge panel said it would postpone Friday's scheduled release of the detainees at least until late next week to give the government more time to make arguments in the case.
The appeals court set a deadline of next Thursday for additional filings, but it is up to the judges to decide how quickly to act afterward.
"The decision is quite a blow," said Emi MacLean, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing many of the detainees. "We basically have to go to the men after telling them they would be released and say that their detention is once again indefinite."
The three-judge appeals panel that halted the detainees' release included Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and A. Raymond Randolph, both appointees of President George H.W. Bush, and Judge Judith W. Rogers, who was appointed by President Clinton.
The appeals court's move came a day after U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina became the first federal jurist to order the release of Guantanamo detainees, ruling that the government must free the 17 Chinese by Friday.
Urbina said it would be wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the detainees, who are Uighurs from the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, since they are no longer considered enemy combatants. The Pentagon cleared 22 Uighurs, including the 17 still detained, for release four years ago.
The Bush administration says the detainees had admitted receiving weapons training in Afghanistan and were suspected of ties to a Uighur separatist group the State Department has designated a terrorist organization.
The administration said it was continuing "heightened" efforts to find another country to accept the Uighurs, who say they fled government persecution in China and might face imprisonment and torture if they return.
Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo in 2006 but has balked at taking others, partly for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China.