The Long, Sad Saga of the Guantanamo Uighurs

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On Tuesday a U.S. federal judge ordered the release of a group of Uighurs who have been held in Guantanamo since 2001. The 17 Chinese citizens were picked up in the months following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Three years ago the government determined that most of them were no longer enemy combatants, but has refused to repatriate them out of fear they would be mistreated by China, which considers them members of a terrorist organization. Funny way to protect them, it seems. Now the men could be released in the U.S. by the end of the week. The A.P. reports:

U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said it would be wrong for the government to continue holding the detainees, known as Uighurs (WEE’-gurz), who have been jailed for nearly seven years, since they are no longer considered enemy combatants. Over the objections of government lawyers who called them a security risk, Urbina ordered their release in Washington D.C. by Friday.

“Because the Constitution prohibits indefinite detentions without cause, the continued detention is unlawful,” Urbina said in a ruling that brought cheers and applause from a standing-room only courtroom filled with dozens of Uighurs and human rights activists.

He also ordered a hearing for next week to decide where the Uighurs should be permanently settled. Until then, members of the Uighur community in the D.C. area have offered to take them in and will help care for them.

The Uighurs, an ethnic group that lives mostly in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, practice Islam and have an uneasy relationship with Chinese rule. (See our recent stories here and here.) In 2006, five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo were sent to Albania, where they live in a sort of purgatory apart from their families in China. Will releasing the remainder of the Uighurs still held in Gitmo make up for their treatment since 2001? I don’t imagine so, but it’s a start.