Washington: The US Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal by Guantanamo inmates from China's Uighur minority to be freed on US soil, in a decision sure to bring relief to the Obama administration.
The Supreme Court had planned on March 23 to hear the men's plea, which had potentially serious implications for President Barack Obama's slow-moving drive to shut down the controversial military prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"By now, however, each of the detainees at issue in this case has received at least one offer of resettlement in another country," the top US court said in a brief, unsigned decision Monday.
"This change in the underlying facts may affect the legal issues presented," it said. "No court has yet ruled in this case in light of the new facts, and we decline to be the first to do so."
The Supreme Court sent the case back down to a US appeals court, which will decide the next move. The same court in February 2009 ruled against the inmates, overturning an earlier order to free them in the United States.
The Muslim men -- part of a community which has long accused China of discrimination -- have all been cleared of wrongdoing. They are staying in a special, low-security part of the prison with a library and recreational space.
The Obama administration had raced to find homes for the men ahead of the Supreme Court hearing, hoping for an outcome like that on Monday. Albania, Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland all accepted detainees, defying intense pressure by China.
Only seven of the original 22 Uighur men at Guantanamo Bay remain in the prison, including two set to go to Switzerland. Palau has offered to accept the remaining five, although the men have hesitated to go to the Pacific island.
Nury Turkel, a Uighur-American lawyer and activist, said the former inmates would face a precarious existence in Palau as the tiny nation offered no path to become a naturalized citizen.
Rebiya Kadeer, the Washington-based leader of Uighur exiles, said that the Supreme Court decision was "clearly a disappointment" for the inmates. "Ultimately, my wish is for the Uighurs remaining at Guantanamo to be granted the freedom and justice they so richly deserve -- the freedom and justice embodied by the United States," she said.
"My hope is that these men, who have committed no crime, will be given a new life soon, outside of Guantanamo," she said. The 22 original detainees had set up a camp in Afghanistan and were seized in the aftermath of the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. US authorities soon concluded that the men were the victims of local bounty-seekers.
In principle, the United States would send cleared inmates to their home country. But it has refused China's demands to repatriate them, saying they would face almost certain persecution.
US lawmakers blocked attempts to free the men on US soil, arguing they still pose a security threat despite US authorities' statements to the contrary. The Obama administration had initially hoped the Uighur case would be one of the easiest in its drive to shut down the Guantanamo prison, seen by critics as a symbol of excesses in former president George W. Bush's "war on terror."
But the administration missed a self-imposed deadline to close it within a year of taking office and is now prepared to hold some inmates indefinitely without charge, albeit inside the United States.
The Uighur case would have marked the first time that the Supreme Court took up the Guantanamo Bay issue since Obama took office. In a landmark 2008 decision, the court rejected the Bush White House's argument that the Guantanamo detainees as "enemy combatants" were not entitled to protection under the US Constitution.
Uighurs hail from China's western Xinjiang region, which last year witnessed some of the country's deadliest ethnic violence in years. Many Uighurs bristle at what they see as cultural and religious persecution at the hands of China, which has sent in settlers from the country's Han majority. Beijing argues that it has spurred development in the arid region.
First Published: Tuesday, March 02, 2010, 12:18