Court dismisses Uighur detainees' appeal

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday dropped a case filed by Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which they sought to be brought to the U.S. because no other country would accept them.

The court had originally accepted the case to determine if federal judges had the power to order the executive branch to release Guantanamo prisoners into the U.S.

Since the court agreed to hear the case, however, the seven Chinese Muslim detainees remaining at Guantanamo have been offered asylum in other countries.

"This change in the underlying facts may affect the legal issues presented," the court noted.

The court ordered the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which previously had ruled against the Uighurs, to rehear the case, consider the new circumstances and determine what should be done.

Advocates for the Uighurs expressed disappointment in the court's decision not to hear the case, which had been scheduled for oral arguments March 23. However, they saw some hope in the court's voiding of the appeals court ruling.

"The issue survives," said Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that has taken the lead in pressing the Uighurs' case. "There may be other detainees who arrive at the Supreme Court who also lack a place to go, (and) mere release of the Uighurs shouldn't defeat the case."

As of Monday, there were 188 detainees at Guantanamo, among them 12 men who have been ordered freed by judges but for whom the U.S. is either reviewing the rulings or seeking nations to resettle them.

The Supreme Court decision wasn't unexpected. Last month, the court had asked attorneys for both sides to submit arguments on the impact of recent developments. Traditionally, the court steers clear of disputes it need not resolve.

Originally, 22 Uighurs were, in the words of their attorneys, "seized in error in the fog of the Afghanistan war" and taken to Guantanamo. During the "darkest days" of their detention, their attorneys said, the Uighurs "were confined in almost total isolation, with almost no social interaction or exposure to sunlight."

The Bush administration eventually conceded that the Uighurs weren't terrorists. Because the Uighurs, an ethnic minority often at odds with the Chinese government, faced potential imprisonment and torture if returned to China, however, Bush administration officials said they couldn't be sent there.

Five were resettled in Albania in 2006, but there were no offers of asylum for the other 17.

In October 2008, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered that the men be released into the U.S. That marked the first time a trial judge had ordered the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees in response to a habeas corpus decision.

Urbina's order, in turn, was overturned by the appeals court, which ruled that the judge was encroaching on the president's turf.