A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs


As Barack Obama arrives in Washington D.C. to prepare for office, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, hopes to put the plight of the Uighurs — innocent men held at Guantánamo in what appears to be a state of perpetual limbo — at the top of the in-tray marked “homeland security.” Without a just resolution, Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo may be impossible to fulfill.

The omens have never been good for the 17 Uighurs in Guantánamo, even though they have justice on their side. Refugees from Chinese oppression who had sought shelter in Afghanistan, only to be captured and sold to US forces as “terror suspects,” the 17 men were the first Guantánamo prisoners to be cleared of being “enemy combatants,” after an appeals court demolished the supposed evidence against one of the men in June, and the government abandoned its claims against the other 16.

They then secured a resounding victory at the start of October, when District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that their continued detention in Guantánamo was unconstitutional, and ordered their release into the United States, as they cannot be returned to China because of fears that they will be tortured, and no other country had been found that was prepared to accept them. When the government appealed Judge Urbina’s ruling, however, only one of the three appeal court judges dealing with the case — Judge Judith W. Rogers, a Bill Clinton nominee — understood the lies and distortions that the government had put together to prevent their release.

Judicial nominees do not always ape the opinions of those who appoint them, of course. Their independence — and their desire to follow legal precedents rather than political whims — often infuriates those who appointed them, but it would be fair to say, I think, that judges’ conservative or liberal tendencies often match those of the Presidents who appointed them.

In November, when Judge Richard Leon, a Bush appointee, ordered five Bosnian Algerians to be released from Guantánamo because the government had failed to substantiate its allegations against them, there was genuine surprise, but the decision in the case of these 17 other innocent men at Guantánamo was all too predictable, as two other Bush nominees, Karen LeCraft Henderson and A. Raymond Randolph, proved themselves unable to notice the government’s dissembling, and endorsed whatever nonsense was pushed their way.

And nonsense it was, as Judge Rogers explained, on October 20, in a dissenting opinion (PDF), when her colleagues first approved the government’s request for a stay on the Uighurs’ release pending an appeal. Although the appeal took place on November 24, the verdict has not yet been announced, but is expected to endorse the administration’s self-proclaimed right to extend the Uighurs’ imprisonment in Guantánamo indefinitely.

In her dissenting opinion, Judge Rogers drew on Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court case last June that revived the prisoners’ habeas corpus rights (first granted in June 2004), after Congress had attempted to remove them in two flawed pieces of legislation (the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006). She noted that the Supreme Court not only granted Guantánamo prisoners “the privilege of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention,” but also held that “a court’s power under the writ must include ‘authority to … issue … an order directing the prisoner’s release.’”

Noting that this was “exactly” what Judge Urbina had done, “subject to conditions to be determined by the district court in light of the views of the Department of Homeland Security and proffers regarding housing and supervision made by their counsel,” Judge Rogers pointed out, unambiguously, that “The court’s release order was based on findings that are either uncontested by the government or clearly supported by the record.” She noted that the government “had filed no returns to the writs filed by ten of the petitioners, and the returns in response to the remainder consisted only of the hearing records from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals” (CSRTs) that had been “found wanting” in Parhat v. Gates, the case in June in which an appeals court had derided the government’s supposed evidence against one of the men, Huzaifa Parhat, for being akin to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dealing a final blow to the government’s unprincipled and two-faced claims that, although cleared of being “enemy combatants,” the men remained a threat to national security because they had received weapons training, Judge Rogers added, “Although expressly offered the opportunity by the district court, the government presented no evidence that the petitioners pose a threat to the national security of the United States or the safety of the community or any person.”

Moving on to the government’s attempts to claim that “under the separation of powers the decision on whether to admit the petitioners into the United States ‘rests solely with the political branches,’” and that “immigration laws preclude a habeas court from ordering the release of an inadmissible alien into the United States,” Judge Rogers stated that the first argument “misstates the law,” because “the Supreme Court has made clear that, in at least some instances, a habeas court can order an alien released with conditions into the country despite the wish of the Executive to detain him indefinitely,” and “It is thus both inadequate and untrue to assert that the political branches have ‘plenary powers over immigration.’”

Dealing with the second argument — that the Uighurs were “inadmissible aliens” either because they had been “engaged in ‘terrorist activity’” or were “members of, or received weapons training from, a terrorist group” — Judge Rogers reiterated that the government was attempting to defy reality, because it “did not proffer evidentiary support for this argument in the district court,” and also explained that, even if this were not the case, the government’s argument was “problematic,” because the Supreme Court “had held that even inadmissible aliens cannot be held indefinitely under the normal immigration detention status,” whereas the Uighurs “have been imprisoned for over six years.”

Judge Rogers also noted that the government had “made no showing” that the Attorney General had “certified” the Uighurs for “special alien-terrorist provision, as required by that statute,” and pointed out that it had, instead, attempted to rely on the same discredited CSRTs that the Parhat judges had found to “lack sufficient indicia of … reliability.”

She also explained that “interpreting the immigration statutes to bar release from Guantánamo robs the petitioners’ habeas right [as granted in Boumediene] of meaning,” and chided the government for misinterpreting a 1953 case, Shaughnessy v. US ex rel. Mezei, in which the Supreme Court ruled that “inadmissible aliens have no constitutional rights because they are outside the territory of the United States,” by explaining that, in Boumediene, the Supreme Court “explicitly recognized that Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to habeas,” and adding that “Mezei sought admission to the United States of his own will while these petitioners require admission because they were abducted by bounty hunters, brought by force to Guantánamo, and imprisoned as enemy combatants, which the government has conceded the petitioners were not.”

In a final salvo, Judge Rogers tackled the government’s attempts to claim that allowing the Uighurs to enter the United States would cause “irreparable harm,” by returning to the lack of any evidence against them. Noting that, “Having failed to file returns for many of the petitioners or to proffer evidence to the district court, the government can point to no evidence of dangerousness,” she added that “such record as exists suggests the opposite,” pointed out that the court “found there is no evidence petitioners harbor hostility toward the United States,” and highlighted a significant passage from Boumediene to wrap up her dissent:

[T]he writ of habeas corpus is itself an indispensable mechanism for monitoring the separation of powers. The test for determining the scope of this provision must not be subject to manipulation by those whose power it is designed to restrain.

Judge Rogers’ dissent clearly highlights the government’s shameful attempts to disguise a catalog of grievous errors through tortuous legal maneuvering, to shirk all responsibility for depriving 17 innocent men of their liberty for seven years, and to dream up justifications for continuing to hold them indefinitely. However, the most distressing result of the craven capitulation of Judges Henderson and Randolph to the government’s last-ditch demonstration of executive arrogance was highlighted by Erin Louise Palmer, a member of the International Human Rights Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of International Law, on a blog maintained by members of the Committee.

Noting that Judge Randolph had written the Court of Appeal’s decisions in Al Odah v. United States, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and Boumediene v. Bush, in which the Court of Appeals had deprived Guantánamo prisoners of their habeas rights and had upheld the validity of the Military Commissions as a suitable trial system, Palmer pointed out that the Supreme Court “disagreed with each of these decisions.” From this a clear inference can be drawn that the Uighurs’ case will not only be taken up by the Supreme Court, but will result in another bloody nose for Judges Henderson and Randolph.

The only problem with this scenario, of course, is that it leaves the Uighurs stranded in Guantánamo with no notion of when they will ever be released. As I explained in a recent article, the only other solution is for Barack Obama to step in and order the men’s release. Given the disgraceful propaganda peddled by the outgoing administration, this may not be a popular move, but it is required not only to emphasize that the new government is committed to upholding the US Constitution, but also as an important gesture to America’s allies, to encourage them to accept other prisoners, cleared for release for many years, who, like the Uighurs, cannot be repatriated because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture.

By freeing the Uighurs to the care of the communities in Washington D.C. and Tallahassee, Florida, who have already prepared detailed plans for their welcome, President Obama can show the leadership, respect for the law and moral courage that is demanded by the plight of Uighurs and that is, moreover, necessary for him to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo, and to begin the long process of addressing the many human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), A transcript of Sabin Willett’s speech in Stockholm (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 2008), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    For any Uighur readers out there, here’s a link to an interview I did with Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia on January 8:

  2. kurax says...

    million thanks from an Uyghur student in Canada.

  3. Political Jib.com » Andy Worthington: Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantanamo, But Not Enough says...

    […] However, it still remains the case, as I have been explaining since Obama came to power, that accepting the Uighurs into the U.S. would be the most effective way to break this particular […]

  4. Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] However, it still remains the case, as I have been explaining since Obama came to power, that accepting the Uighurs into the US would be the most effective way to break this particular […]

  5. Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] by the Bush administration regarding Guantánamo that was later overturned by the Supreme Court) ignored the dissent of the third judge, Judith W. Rogers, who argued that the government’s case “misstates the […]

  6. MelatoninFaq says...

    Barack Obama for me is the most charismatic president to be ever elected. He also makes great decisions, for example in the ecomomic stimulus package to counter the effects of recession.

  7. “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition « freedetainees.org says...

    […] (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy […]

  8. No Escape from Guantanamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

    […] Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantلnamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantلnamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantلnamo […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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