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U.S. should resettle Uighurs held at Guantanamo

The U.S. acknowledges the five detainees are victims of mistaken identity who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Congress has a moral obligation to make amends.

April 22, 2011
  • Uighur detainees at Guantanamo protest their situation June 1. Chinese officials wanted them repatriated to stand trial for separatist activities.
Uighur detainees at Guantanamo protest their situation June 1. Chinese… (Brennan Linsley / Pool Photo )

The Supreme Court this week ended the quest of five exonerated Guantanamo detainees who are seeking release in the United States. The defeat for the Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority group in China, shouldn't be the end of the story. The problem is that other paths to settling them here are strewn with obstacles.

The Uighurs' story is a poignant one: They had traveled to Afghanistan, where they joined training camps run by a Uighur separatist group. After the United States launched a military offensive in Afghanistan, they fled to Pakistan, where they were swept up by Pakistani and other coalition forces and brought to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nine years later, they continue to languish in prison, although they were eventually cleared of being enemy combatants and were approved for resettlement. They sued the United States in hopes of being admitted to this country, where there is a vibrant Uighur community.

A federal judge ordered the release of the Uighurs and their resettlement in the United States. But an appeals court reversed the ruling, holding that decisions about admitting foreigners belonged to Congress and the executive branch. The Uighurs appealed, but the Supreme Court has now declined to hear the case. Four justices issued a statement emphasizing that the Uighurs were given an opportunity to resettle in other countries, and held out the slender hope of a different result if a receiving country reneged.

The United States has a moral obligation to accommodate the Uighurs, whom the government acknowledges are victims of mistaken identity. But if that is to happen, it won't be by court order. The problem is that other avenues to their resettlement are blocked as well. Congress has passed (and the president signed) legislation to prevent the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the United States. And the Uighurs can't apply for political asylum because they're not in the United States or on a border, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that U.S. law applies in Guantanamo.

These restrictions would have been trumped if the Supreme Court had reinstated the trial judge's ruling ordering resettlement. The court's unwillingness to do so — or even to hear the case — compounds the injustice of the Uighurs' imprisonment.

Some believe the president could use his inherent powers to unilaterally order the release of the Uighurs and their resettlement in this country, but that's a doubtful prospect. The Uighurs' hopes now rest with Congress, which needs to recognize that not every detainee at Guantanamo is an enemy of the United States; some are long-suffering victims of American neglect.

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