In a landmark ruling, a federal district judge in Washington, D.C., today ordered the government to release a group of 17 Chinese Muslims held at Guantánamo Bay. The decision marks the first time a judge has ordered the government to free a prisoner from Guantánamo and delivers a powerful blow to the Bush administration’s illegal and misguided detention policy.
The question before the district judge was simple: does the Executive have the power to permanently imprison innocent individuals because it is politically expedient? Even more astounding than the judge’s decision was the fact that the United States government would continue to press such a shameful and bogus argument in a federal courtroom.
The prisoners in question are members of an ethnic minority in China known as the Uighurs. Like many others, they ended up in Guantánamo by mistake. What makes their case different is that this time the government admits it was wrong (although it still tries to cloak its error in double-speak by labeling the Uighurs “no longer enemy combatants” because the category of “innocent” doesn’t exist at Guantánamo). The problem is that the U.S. can’t send the Uighurs home since China will either torture or kill them and no other country will accept them for fear of angering China.
The government’s response to this dilemma has been to continue to imprison the Uighurs for as long as it takes to find a “diplomatic solution,” even though they have already been locked up without cause for almost seven years. Imprisoning innocent people is not only immoral; it is also unconstitutional. Indefinite detention without charge, ruled District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in today’s decision, violates due process. Or, put more bluntly, enough is enough.
The judge ordered the government to present the Uighurs in his courtroom this Friday so he can hand them over to local caretakers. For the Uighurs, today’s decision promises a glimmer of hope after years of darkness in a prison beyond the law. For America, it offers an opportunity to begin to restore the sense of justice and moral credibility that Guantánamo has so badly tarnished.