Lawyers for 17 Chinese Muslims held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to order their clients' release into the United States.
The Muslims, members of the Uighur minority from China's Xinjiang region, have been held without charge at Guantanamo Bay for more than seven years despite their military jailers' concession years ago that they posed no threat to the United States.
Human rights lawyers urged the Supreme Court to free the Uighurs, who were never deemed "enemy combatants" by the Pentagon review tribunals.
"This is now President Obama's Guantanamo. If he is truly committed to closing the detention center, these men should be on a plane to restart their lives in the United States," said Emi MacLean, a staff attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Obama in January ordered the review of all 240 prisoners still at Guantanamo, where nearly 800 have been brought since the Bush administration began detaining terrorism suspects abroad after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dean Boyd, spokesman for the Justice Department's national security division, refused to comment on the Uighurs' specific petition. "Given that this review is pending, we're not in a position to comment on the final disposition of any particular detainee at this time," he said.
The Uighurs were originally ordered to be released into the United States four months after a June 2008 high-court decision, Boumediene vs. Bush, that determined that Guantanamo prisoners were entitled to habeas corpus, the right to challenge their detention, in federal court.
But in February the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned that decision.
"What good is habeas if all they get is a book report from judges and go right back to jail to read it?" asked Sabin Willett, lead attorney for the Uighurs. "That's what habeas is all about -- you get a judgment and you get out."
He noted that 24 of 29 Guantanamo habeas cases heard so far by a federal judge in Washington have been won. But the judge's orders require only that the detaining authorities search for a place to release them.
Finding a home for the Uighurs has been difficult. They cannot be returned to China because of fears they would be tortured or executed.
China has accused the Uighurs of waging a separatist movement in the western Xinjiang region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and former Soviet Central Asian republics.
Five Uighurs were released to Albania in 2006, but Beijing's protests have discouraged countries from accepting others.