Supreme Court to hear appeal from Guantánamo Bay Uighur prisoners

The high court agreed to take up the case over the objections of the Obama administration.

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The court’s ruling could complicate the administration’s plans to close the detainee facility by the end of January, as it comes amid intense debate in Congress about whether any detainees should be moved to U.S. soil.

The court agreed to hear the case the same day critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars announced a new television advertising campaign aimed at closing Guantánamo.

The case concerns 17 Muslim Uighur men from western China taken prisoner in Afghanistan. They are still at Guantánamo, though several trial judges have determined they are not a threat to the United States.

A federal judge ordered the men released last October, but an appeals court reversed that ruling in February, determining that judges do not have the authority to override immigration laws and force the executive branch to release detainees into the country.

In a 5-4 ruling last year, the Supreme Court said Guantánamo prisoners had a constitutional right to have a judge hear their case. The high court determined that the detainees could file a writ of habeas corpus and ask a judge to decide whether the U.S. government has grounds for holding them as enemy combatants.

The justices did not weigh in, however, on the specifics surrounding the question of whether the president or a judge has the power to determine how and when to release them.

The Obama administration has sent some of the Uighur prisoners to Bermuda, and Palau is willing to accept most of the rest. Only one prisoner is still trying to figure out where to go. The prisoners fear they will be persecuted if they return to China.

The Justice Department tried to convince the Supreme Court not to hear the case by arguing the Uighurs are “free to leave Guantánamo Bay to go to any country that is willing to accept them.” In the meantime, Justice said, the detainees “are housed in facilities separate from those for enemy combatants under the least restrictive conditions practicable.”

The ad campaign comes from the National Campaign to Close Guantánamo. It spent $100,000 on the first ad, which will run on national cable for one week starting on Wednesday. Additional ads are planned for specific congressional districts to pressure lawmakers to support President Barack Obama’s call to close the facility.

Retired Brig. Gen. John Johns and Lt. Gen. Robert Gard joined VoteVets.org Chairman Jon Soltz and former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine) in announcing the campaign urging Congress to reject arguments to keep Guantánamo open.

“As [Defense] Secretary Robert Gates has said, the opposition to moving these people to supermax facilities in the United States is pure fear-mongering,” Johns said. “One hundred forty-five international terrorists have been convicted in U.S. courts since 2001 and not one has escaped from there.”

Andrews, who heads the group, said it is “on track” to raise millions of dollars for the ongoing campaign. Andrews said districts for the additional ads will be chosen in the next few weeks.

The campaign follows the defeat of a GOP-led effort in the House to block the transfer of any Guantánamo Bay detainee to U.S. soil. In a 224-193 vote, the House approved an amendment to the $42.8 billion Homeland Security spending bill that would allow detainees to be transferred to the U.S. for trial. The bill now moves to the Senate, where swift passage is expected.

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Opponents of closing Guantánamo Bay argue public opinion is on their side. Republicans cite a June Gallup poll showing that Americans oppose plans to move Gitmo detainees to the U.S. by a 4-to-1 margin.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is planning another attempt to block the transfer of a subset of the detainees: anyone accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He plans to offer an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill prohibiting the use of funds for trying in U.S. civilian courts anyone involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. This would affect about a half-dozen suspects accused of being involved in planning the attacks.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has hammered the administration over efforts to close the prison.

Most recently, Hoekstra said the Obama administration has failed to produce a coherent plan to close the facility, which he said has created confusion in Congress and communities that may be forced to take the detainees.

“There is no leadership at the White House on this issue, the Defense and Justice departments are refusing any and all transparency and the administration is blocking congressional oversight,” Hoekstra said. “Meanwhile, local communities have been offered rosy economic scenarios but the administration refuses to share even the most basic security information the federal government has collected on the detainees.”

The City Council in Standish, Mich., on Monday voted 6-0 to express interest in establishing a regular federal prison on the site of a soon-to-close state jail. It stripped references to the detainees from its resolution.

Earlier this month, the Coalition for Security, Liberty and the Law, a group consisting of dozens of former generals, admirals and security policy professionals, sent a letter to Obama urging that detainees held at Guantánamo Bay not be transferred to the U.S. until a more permanent and secure alternative is found.

Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy welcomes the national debate about closing Guantánamo.

“If they sponsor and stimulate and encourage people to think about what is afoot here, the common sense of the American people will come down squarely on the side of not closing this state-of-the-art detention facility,” he said.